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Balto. Co.'s 'rain tax' folly

More money in your pocket. Baltimore County may be the first in the state to eliminate the so-called rain tax, a fee that's hit some hard, especially small business owners.

Here's how much most Baltimore County homeowners pay for stormwater remediation, the fee often disparaged as a "rain tax": $26 per year. Yet combined with the larger contributions made by businesses (that also account for a much larger share of pollution), the county is able to invest $16 million annually in projects to protect the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries from the growing threat posed by runoff.

Given that reality, it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that the Baltimore County Council is planning to repeal the fee — and appears to have the votes to do so unanimously. That would put the seven-member council, including four Democrats, on an anti-environmental path beyond such GOP-led counties as Howard and Anne Arundel. Even Carroll County, which does not charge a stormwater remediation fee, has designated a portion of its property tax revenue for that purpose.

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How did this happen? Certainly, the fee is unpopular in many quarters, including the county's east side, and Larry Hogan's opposition to it helped get him elected governor last year. But that's largely a result of some serious political prevarication — a representation that it's a tax on rain (it isn't), that it's anti-business (not true) or that runoff isn't a serious problem — when the reality is that it's one of the Chesapeake Bay's biggest environmental threats.

The more impervious surface we create, whether in the form of driveways, parking lots, roofs or other hard substances that rain can't penetrate, the greater the amount and speed of runoff that sweeps fertilizers, pet waste, pesticides and other contaminants into local waters; erodes stream banks; and stirs harmful sediments. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring local governments to take steps to address the problem, and the remediation fee was offered by state government as a way to finance those projects. By the county's own reckoning, stormwater runoff is its top cause of polluted water, accounting for 23 percent of nitrogen, 31 percent of phosphorus and 69 percent of sediment pollution.

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Even if one abhors taxes and cares not a fig for the Chesapeake Bay, this is a short-sighted choice. For one thing, the refund will prove virtually unnoticeable (County Executive Kevin Kamenetz reduced the levy by one-third for most county residents earlier this year, and the sound of taxpayer gratitude was something less than deafening), but here's the real problem: It means those average taxpayers, not the big polluters, will be stuck with the EPA-mandated bill. If the council were really interested in repealing this not-so-onerous fee, it would do better to reduce the property tax rate by an equivalent amount and keep billing the big polluters.

Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, has said he believes the lower fee will help attract businesses to the former Sparrows Point steel mill now in the process of redevelopment. What he doesn't acknowledge is that the county will have to either raise taxes or reduce capital spending by at least $16 million to cover that giveaway to developers. And what is the county's largest consumer of capital spending? That would be the school system, what with its plans to have fewer schools where students swelter in classrooms for lack air conditioning and are forced to drink brown water from school fountains. (Given Governor Hogan's recent interest in the temperature of Baltimore County classrooms, perhaps he should come to Towson to testify on the rain tax's behalf.)

So what's more important to the council, the refurbishment of Dulaney High School and similar projects, or greasing the palms of deep-pocketed developers? And here's something else the council may not realize: the so-called "rain tax repeal" signed into law by Governor Hogan this year that allows the county to repeal its stormwater fee will still require the council to designate an alternative income stream. So the money has to come from somewhere — and it will have to be funded next year and the year after that and so on.

Finally, it should be noted that Baltimore County's streams and rivers are hurting. Most are regarded as "impaired," and that includes the Lower Gunpowder, Little Gunpowder, Gunpowder River, Bird River, Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls. The county has already failed to meet its commitment to reduce stormwater runoff to promised levels under its most recent MS4 permit required by the EPA. Only about one-fifth of the county's urban areas are currently served by stormwater management facilities, meaning that four-fifths are not.

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The proposed repeal is not only short-sighted, it's effectively a transfer of tax obligation from businesses that account for much of the pollution to average homeowners who don't. One group gets to sidestep responsibility and pocket thousands of dollars while the other gets the equivalent of a Starbucks cappuccino every other month (but still gets to foot the pollution bill in the long run). How such a decision could be worthy of support by anyone on the council, let alone every member, is absolutely baffling.

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