Baltimore takes first step toward setting storm-water fee

Facing federal and state mandates to reduce pollution washing off its streets and alleys, Baltimore city is taking the first step toward imposing a fee on residents or property owners to pay for controlling its tainted storm-water runoff.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Youngintroduced a resolution Monday night calling for a charter amendment to create a "stormwater utility" for Baltimore. It's slated for a hearing June 12 before the council's judiciary and legislative investigations committee, chaired byCouncilmanJames B. Kraft. If passed, the charter change would have to be approved by voters in November.

The resolution doesn't actually say the city will begin charging residents or property owners a storm-water fee, just that a separate, "financially self-sustaining" fund would be established to pay for such work. 

Like the rest of Maryland, Baltimore faces a huge job getting a handle on the torrents of trash, nutrients and sediment flushed down its storm drains into local streams and the harbor every time it rains.  Statewide, officials estimate that stormwater runoff accounts for 18 percent of the nitrogen and nearly 22 percent of the phosphorus responsible for creating a massive dead zone in the bay every summer.

The city is going to be required to substantially reduce that pollution under a new stormwater permit to be issued soon by the Maryland Department of the Environment, as well as under the Chesapeake Bay "pollution diet" imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency on all bay states.

To do that, the city will have to retrofit storm drains, replace asphalt with porous pavement and plant trees and "rain gardens" around Baltimore.  Public works officials have estimated the pricetag for that and other steps needed to meet the bay cleanup mandate could cost $250 million over the next six years.

City Hall has been mulling pushing for a storm-water fee for years, and even promised to act on it earlier this year in a bay cleanup plan submitted to MDE last fall.  But officials held off - perhaps reluctant to pile yet another fee on taxpayers at a time when other taxes and fees were being imposed to balance the city's budget.

Baltimore was not alone in its reluctance. Only a handfull of municipalities and counties have imposed fees to pay for runoff controls.  Though state law has authorized the fees for years, lawmakers in Annapolis have repeatedly balked at ordering them.  

This year, though, the Maryland General Assembly finally passed legislation mandating that the state's nine largest counties and Baltimore city begin levying fees to pay for stormwater controls.

The state legislation doesn't specify the size of the fee or even how it would be assessed.  The law leaves that up to local officials, but orders them to have the fees in place by July 1, 2013.  That's when the city's charter amendment would take effect if approved by city voters.  Council would then have to pass separate legislation setting the fee.