Stormwater fee debate continues flowing in Arundel

Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman has scheduled a series of public meetings on the implementation of a stormwater fee, while at the same time the County Council is considering an amendment to the fee that would essentially exempt all nonprofit organizations.

Neuman said last week that her office continues to get phone calls and emails from property owners with questions about the fees, which were imposed based on a state mandate. The county's first fees were included in the most recent round of property tax bills.

"Anne Arundel County residents deserve to have answers to their questions," Neuman said in a statement. "We may not be able to do anything about the tax, but we will make sure residents know how the county arrived at the assessment numbers and how their hard-earned tax dollars will be used."

Public meetings are planned for 7 p.m. Monday at Brooklyn Park Middle School, 200 Hammonds Lane in Brooklyn Park; 6 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Heritage Office Complex, 2660 Riva Road in Annapolis; and 6 p.m. Oct. 2 at Meade High School, 1100 Clark Road on Fort Meade.

Meanwhile, the County Council, which has tweaked the fees several times this year, is considering another adjustment based on concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Under the fee structure approved this spring, religious nonprofits that own property — such as churches and synagogues —have to pay only $1 for the stormwater fee, while other nonprofits get a 60 percent discount on the fee.

The ACLU has raised a concern about treating religious nonprofits differently from other nonprofits.

"This disparate treatment to benefit religious groups over all other nonprofits is highly problematic under the Constitution," wrote Deborah A. Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, in a letter to the county executive and County Council in July.

Jeon suggested that the $1 fee should either be extended to all nonprofits or should be eliminated entirely.

A bill sponsored by County Council Chairman Jerry Walker and Councilman Derek Fink would extend the $1 fee to nonprofits that are exempt from taxes under certain portions of the IRS code and also are exempt from state property taxes. The bill is scheduled for a public hearing on Oct. 7.

During a County Council work session Tuesday, public works officials estimated that the county would take in $75,000 less in stormwater fees if the bill is passed. About 50 to 60 nonprofits may benefit from the lower fee.

Under state law passed in 2012, Anne Arundel, eight other counties and Baltimore City were required to enact a fee on property owners beginning this year to pay for stormwater projects aimed at curbing pollution that reaches the Chesapeake Bay. Uncontrolled stormwater runoff carries sediment, nutrients and other pollutants into the bay, rivers and streams.

The fee has been dubbed a "rain tax" by some critics.

Each jurisdiction can pass its own rate structure, and Anne Arundel's is $34, $85 or $170 per year for residential property owners, depending on the type of house that they own. The fees are being phased in over three years.

Nonresidential property owners are charged based on the amount of impervious surfaces on their properties. The fees are capped at the equivalent of 25 percent of the land's property tax, and the fees are phased in if they amount to more than $500.

The money is used for pollution-reduction projects, such as restoring streams damaged by uncontrolled runoff and converting stormwater holding ponds into wetlands that slow and treat runoff.

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