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Baltimore County's unappealing repeal

The loss of more than 100,000 fish in the Middle River area last week, all victims of toxic algae triggered by warm weather and high nutrient levels, might have seemed an ominous (and entirely appropriate) foreshadowing to the Baltimore County Council's decision to wipe out the county's stormwater remediation fee or "rain tax" a few days later. There's a direct connection between the pollution that runs off county streets, sidewalks, parking lots and other impervious surfaces and fish kills like the one that devastated Middle River and several of its tributaries.

But it isn't fish that were gutted and filleted by the council's unanimous decision Monday night. It was the taxpayers. Baltimore County is going to have to clean up its pollution one way or another — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is going to require it and so will the state of Maryland under laws governing the municipal separate storm sewer system or "MS4" permit that are far out of reach of the council. In repealing the fee, the council merely shifted the burden of that cleanup from polluters to average citizens, an annual bill of $16 million or more that just got dropped in the laps of county residents.

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The purpose of the stormwater remediation fee is often misunderstood — the dishonest "rain tax" crusade of recent years having hopelessly muddled what started out as a fairly straightforward effort to clean up a neglected but growing source of water pollution and help spare communities from flooding. Baltimore County residents had it particularly good, as average homeowners pay a piddling $14-to-$26 each year with a greater burden placed on commercial property owners. Some business owners weren't happy with this balance, but that's a matter the council could have resolved by amending the fee, not eliminating it.

What's particularly galling about the council's action is that it didn't identify a new revenue stream to replace the fee as required by state law. But whether the council is challenged in court over this missing element or not, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is going to have to find that $16 million elsewhere in the budget. He isn't going to raise taxes, not in a county that hasn't increased the property or income rates in decades. The only available choice? Eliminate projects from the capital budget that are not stormwater related (remember, those are now required) or involve schools, which Mr. Kamenetz has vowed to leave whole.

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That means county taxpayers are going to get $16 million less of community projects — less for parks, road resurfacing, keeping buildings in good repair, building senior centers or police stations, and so on. It can't be pried out of the general fund (which is 85 percent committed to fixed costs like employee salaries and benefits, according to county estimates), and it isn't just for one year. The fee is eliminated entirely and forever in 2017, so taxpayers will have to sacrifice those benefits year after year after year.

So the obvious question is why? Why give up all that to subsidize polluters? Perhaps it's because business owners complained about the cost, as did non-profits, and council members sought to oil this squeaking wheel. But again, the law could have been amended to reduce their burden, and the council didn't even try. No, the real culprit here was a campaign of disinformation, a false claim that the county was ridiculously "taxing the rain" when it was merely trying to make sure polluters took responsibility for harmful runoff from their property. Rather than educate voters, Democratic and Republican council members alike chose to score cheap political points.

If the council wanted to give county residents a tax break, members could easily have looked elsewhere — two cents off the property tax (which doesn't sound like much but would cost $15.2 million and provide a greater direct benefit for most owners), for instance. If they wanted to make the county more business friendly, they might have invested more in upgrading congested roads instead of trimming back that pot of money. Instead, they joined the long procession of people admiring the emperor's invisible clothing and served up a tax "break" without bothering to explain what it's going to cost county residents. Under the guise of fiscal discipline, the council acted irresponsibly, giving what observers call the "shift and shaft," shifting costs elsewhere and shafting the unwary — in this case, Mr. and Mrs. Average Taxpayer.

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