A Carroll County plan to pay for state-mandated stormwater remediation projects through property tax proceeds — instead of through a direct fee to land owners decried by critics as Maryland's "rain tax" — has been given a green light by state environmental officials.
The decision ends months of sparring between the state and county, a dispute that escalated when the state attorney general's office threatened fines of up to $10,000 per day if Carroll didn't comply.
In 2012, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law requiring the state's nine largest counties and Baltimore City to collect fees to pay for stormwater management, as well as stream and wetland restoration projects. The projects are aimed at improving water quality and reducing phosphorous and nitrogen entering the Chesapeake Bay.
Over the past year most jurisdictions under the mandate have established fees for residential, commercial and nonprofit properties.
But in Carroll — where Commissioner Haven Shoemaker labeled the fee a "stupid, silly, idiotic tax" — officials instead established a Watershed Protection and Restoration Fund that officials said would tap grants and county property tax dollars to pay for stormwater remediation.
State officials rejected that approach, but Maryland Department of the Environment spokeswoman Samantha Kappalman said that after the county agreed to enact dedicated funding through its annual property tax ordinance, attorneys for the agency have since found Carroll's plan "to be in compliance."
"The state has no preference with regard to sources of funding for local programs," she said, "just that the requirements of these programs are met."
Carroll's county attorney told the attorney general's office in a Feb. 27 letter that the county will designate a portion of property owners' tax bill into a fund to pay for stormwater remediation, and that the amount will vary year-to-year based on anticipated needs. For example, he said, the anticipated need for 2014 is roughly $918,000.
Philip Hager, Carroll's director of planning and land use, said the county has identified funding in its in capital improvements plan to fund new stormwater management projects in accordance with permits through 2019. "We have made a significant investment and we plan to continue to do so," he said.
State Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Republican who has introduced a bill in Annapolis to repeal the stormwater fee, called the Carroll decision "very good news."
"My position all along is let the counties have a choice, whether they want to do it through their own budget system or a fee," Kittleman said, who represents parts of Carroll and Howard counties. "What the attorney general has indicated for Carroll County is as long as you get the funds necessary for the requirements, you don't need to [levy a fee]."
Alison Prost, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said it's "too early to judge" what the Carroll decision means for other counties that are charging separate fees.
"We want to make sure this is set up to meet the spirit of law," she said. "It's dependent on the projects being done. We want to see results."
She said there's concern other jurisdictions will now take another look at their fees, which could cause uncertainty about progress on bay cleanup.
Anne Arundel County Council Chairman John Grasso said that won't be the case in his jurisdiction, which is phasing in fees that range from $34 to $170 for residential homeowners. The council overrode County Executive Laura Neuman's veto of the stormwater fees last year, and "I don't see anybody changing," said Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican.
Grasso said Anne Arundel needs the fees to meet the county's pollution-reduction requirements because "we don't have the money in our budget. That's the problem."
In November, MDE had threatened fines not only against Carroll, but also Frederick and Harford counties regarding the stormwater fee. Harford had considered repealing the fee structure it had put in place after citizen outcry, and Frederick County imposed a 1-cent fee that the state said was not acceptable.
Frederick County Commissioners President Blaine Young said the Carroll situation wouldn't affect Frederick's ongoing dispute with the state, and that the county has no plan to change the 1-cent amount.
Harford County spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson declined to comment on the Carroll ruling since county officials had not yet seen it, but said "short of the federal and state governments relaxing stormwater mandates, anything that allows for greater flexibility in how counties can fund these projects is a positive."
Clarification: The initial version of this story should have made clear that the Department of the Environment approved Carroll County's stormwater remediation plan only after the county agreed to enact dedicated funding through its annual property tax ordinance. It has been updated here.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Amanda Yeager, Pamela Wood and Nayana Davis contributed to this article.