In a 4-1 vote on Monday, the Howard County Council struck down a measure to eliminate the county's controversial stormwater remediation fee, dubbed the "rain tax" by opponents.
Introduced by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and Councilman Greg Fox, the measure would have slashed the stormwater fee in half by fiscal year 2017 and eliminated it by fiscal year 2018. The fee currently brings in $10 million annually.
The fee phase-out was blocked amid questions on how stormwater remediation projects would be financed without a dedicated revenue source. Council members expressed reservations about the administration's financial plan, which pulled funds from grants, a reserve balance and general obligation bonds, among other sources.
Citing "overwhelming public support" to maintain the fee — a public hearing in January was nearly standing room only — Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said the administration's financial plan was inadequate.
Without "a clear picture" of cuts required by phasing-out the fee, Councilwoman Jen Terrasa said eliminating the fee was not a "prudent" approach. A recent report by the Spending Affordability Advisory Committee cautioned the county to avoid eliminating the fee absent a secure financial plan.
Kittleman called the council's decision a "disappointment."
"The big losers tonight are residents and businesses," Kittleman said, citing what he called overwhelming support for the phase-out based on his interactions with residents. "We'll find out what the next council will do in 2018."
Immediately after it was introduced, the council also struck down a somewhat unusual measure introduced by Fox that would "honor" council members who support the fee with a "prominent" footnote on the real property tax bill.
Councilman Jon Weinstein introduced two measures to modify the county's current fee system, a move he says addresses concerns on both sides.
In an effort to address the "imbalanced impact" on commercial properties, the measure would bump the maximum fee down from 20 percent of property taxes to 15 percent in fiscal year 2017, 10 percent in fiscal year 2018 and five percent in fiscal year 2019.
The administration could dole out credits to fee payers if the fund balance can accommodate the credit, based on the proposal.
The council also unanimously voted to table Kittleman's bid to reorganize the Department of Citizen Services in order to allow more time to learn how boards and commissions would be impacted, said Council Chairman Calvin Ball.
In addition to other organization changes, the measure aims to sever the Housing Commission from the Department of Housing and Community Development and shuffle the department's responsibilities to a reorganized Department of Citizen Services.
The council also tabled Weinstein and Terrasa's push to create a citizen-funded campaign system if passed by a ballot vote. Both sponsors were unable to attend a work session last week to discuss the legislation.
The council unanimously voted to pass a bill that would allow police to prohibit non-electric cars from parking in spaces designated as recharging stations for electric vehicles. An act passed unanimously in late 2014 but fell short of providing police the authority to impound vehicles.
In another unanimous vote, the council added Haviland Mill Road to the county's inventory of scenic roads. The resolution will likely prompt the council to revisit the county's rules and regulations for designating scenic roads, said Fox, who introduced the measure.
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The county's scenic road inventory is old and could provide "false expectations" regarding the value of scenic roads, said Sigaty. "There's a question of whether or not some of the roads [in the inventory] are even scenic," Sigaty said.
At the request of Terrasa, who expressed reservations about a last-minute amendment, the council also tabled a bill to update the county's Fire Protection Code, which was last updated in 2007.
New legislation includes a measure by Ball to task the Environmental Sustainability Board to review existing mold-related reports commissioned by the school system and make recommendations to the council and the county executive. Ball also introduced legislation that would give property owners more time to clear snow from sidewalks abutting a public right of way.
The county's current clearing requirement — 48 hours after the last snowflake falls — came under fire during January's historic blizzard when the administration scaled back on a reminder for residents to clear sidewalks in order to avoid fines. The legislation would give the county executive more flexibility under a state of emergency, Ball said.
The council will also take up legislation to amend Howard County's water and sewage master plan, which details changes for future facilities and planned service areas.