A proposal to repeal Harford County's version of the state-mandated stormwater remediation fee, more commonly called "the rain tax," got plenty of opposition from the public at a County Council hearing Tuesday night.
Repealing the fee has been a major focus of new County Executive Barry Glassman's administration, as it has been for Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, who takes office Jan. 21.
Passing the repeal should be "real easy," Glassman told the council members during Tuesday's hearing.
He assured them that "Harford County will continue to meet its goals. We will work toward the goals set out by the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]."
Glassman pointed out the farming community has been able to meet nutrient management and run-off goals without being required to pay an annual tax.
"We can do the same thing. We don't necessarily need a mandated fee to do that," Glassman said. "I feel that bill is an easy one for you to do."
Former county executive David Craig originally proposed that it be $125 for each residential dwelling (to include farms) and $7 per every 500 square feet of impervious surface on commercial and industrial property; however, the council scaled the fees back to 10 percent of what Craig proposed: $12.50 for each dwelling and 70 cents per every 500 square feet of impervious commercial and industrial surfaces.
The legislation is likely to be reviewed Hogan, who made criticism of the "rain tax" a major part of his platform.
County Public Works Director Tim Whittie said the mandated fee is inherently unfair, as it does not apply to municipalities like Bel Air. That means, for example, the Festival at Bel Air, located outside the town limits, would have to pay the fee, but Upper Chesapeake Medical Center and Harford Mall would not.
Whittie also said the county will continue to fund stormwater remediation projects.
Councilman Jim McMahan asked about potential threats of litigation to the county, if the local fee is repealed, noting Carroll County was previously threatened by the state when it refused to set a fee.
Whittie said the state never followed through on the threat. He added the county is collecting about $1 million from the nominal fee it implemented, which is going specifically toward operating costs of the county's program.
Several residents questioned how the county would pay for those costs without the fee. The state mandate was meant to fund local stormwater management and wetland restoration projects, as passed in 2012 by the General Assembly, not operating costs, they noted.
Council President Dick Slutzky said he thought the "most salient" point of the justification for the repeal is that the state had no problem giving Harford its MS4, or Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, permit. Slutzky said he thinks that demonstrated the state understood Harford plans to do its part to remediate stormwater.
"The council and the county still intends to meet the environmental regulations the state thinks is necessary...although we have changed the funding stream," Slutzky said.
But Matt Robinson, who said he is an environmental professional specializing in stormwater management, as well as a Harford County native, who lives in Washington, D.C., said the repeal would put Harford at "great risk" of not meeting legal obligations
"Stormwater scours our streams," he said, explaining that runoff pollution destroys local bodies of water.
He added the MS4 permit mentioned earlier requires the county to treat runoff from 20 percent of its impervious system by 2018 and the stormwater fee was designed to help pay for that.
"Not having that funding puts the county in danger of being in violation of its MS4 permit," he said.
Questioning the moniker of "rain tax," Robinson said: "This measure was never meant to tax the rain."
Bill Temmink, of Joppatowne, said the county needs to take more ownership of the pollution problem and argued against the fee repeal legislation.
He said 90 percent of Harford's major bodies of water, such as the Gunpowder River, Winters Run, Bush River, Susquehanna River and Broad Creek, "are not swimmable and not usable in full."
"Any argument against doing anything... is like peeing in your own pool and then expecting it to be clean the next day. And blaming it on the state or anyone else makes no sense," Temmink continued. "It's our water, it's our part of the bay, that's what leadership is."
"Cutting the program without a good alternative in place is a terrible problem and just saying we're going to do it is not really good enough," he added.
Tom Myers, of the Harford County Democratic Central Committee, also said the county is required to enact the fee by state law.
"I believe just saying we are going to come up with a plan is not an action that will help the [Chesapeake] Bay," Myers said.
Others questioned where the county would get money for needed stormwater remediation if it doesn't have revenue dedicated for that purpose.
Glenn Dudderar, of Perryman, said he represents Friends of Harford, a land use advocacy group, which likewise opposes the repeal. He said the administration is asking residents to trust that the county will get the money somehow for needed stormwater remediation.
He quoted former President Ronald Reagan, saying: "Trust, but specify."
Tracey Waite, of Bel Air, asked what else would be eliminated from the county budget to raise the funding for remediation, or how else the money would be raised.
Charles Fillburn, of Forest Hill, said he lives on Deer Creek and is a member of the Deer Creek Watershed Association.
He said stormwater there is "a serious problem" and he is "totally convinced" it is related to the increase of impervious surface.
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"It is an increasing problem. We all have to play a role in this," Fillburn said.