Move to delay pollution fees afoot in Annapolis

Amid complaints over what critics dismiss as a "rain tax," some powerful lawmakers in Annapolis are mounting a last-minute attempt Monday to delay state-mandated storm-water fees that Baltimore city and Maryland's nine largest counties are about to assess their property owners for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said Sunday she plans to propose a two-year moratorium on local governments levying storm-water pollution fees. The move comes just a year after the General Assembly ordered the state's 10 largest localities to put such fees in place, with the deadline for them to act July 1.

Conway, a Baltimore city Democrat, said in an interview that lawmakers have been peppered with complaints from constituents about the fees, which have yet to be finally adopted in most localities.  Conway said legislators also were confused by variations in rates being considered by the city and counties.

"Nobody really knows what the fees are going to be," she said.

 The move to postpone the storm-water fees, first rumored late Friday, has alarmed environmentalists, who'd been pushing legislation to lift an exemption for state-owned properties. That bill, HB508, now pending in the Senate, has already been substantially rewritten to continue the state exemption and to cap fees on nonprofits.  But on Monday, Conway said she would present a substitute amendment that would instead put all fees on hold.

"The bill has basically been turned into a Trojan horse," complained Erik Michelsen, executive director of the South River Federation, an Anne Arundel County watershed protection group.

Residential storm-water fees now under consideration across the Baltimore area vary from as little as $18 per year in Baltimore County to as much as $170 annually in Anne Arundel County. Some businesses, churches and nonprofits have complained that they face bills totaling thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, because their fees are based on how much property is covered by buildings and pavement. Property owners can reduce their bills by planting trees, installing rain gardens and doing other things to reduce polluted runoff, but many of those discounts also have not been finalized.

Legislation mandating the fees passed last year in the final minutes of the 2012 General Assembly, after falling short in previous years.  Environmentalists hailed it at the time as a major step in dealing with the pollution that's washing off streets, parking lots and buildings.  Until now, only Montgomery County had adopted a storm-water fee. Now, under the law, Howard County recently finalized its fee, and other localities are in the process, except for Carroll County, which is still studying what to do.

Conway said she recognizes the storm-water fees are needed to help pay for restoring the Chesapeake Bay.  But some lawmakers have gotten cold feet about them, she explained, especially in light of the burden put on Maryland taxpayers by other revenue measures adopted in recent years, including the gas tax increases approved in this session.

"We hit them with so many taxes," she said, "maybe they need a reprieve."

Conway said some leading lawmakers would prefer to make local governments take an extra year to figure out their fees - and then once the fees are set to give all property owners another year's notice what they would have to pay before starting to collect.

"We were not happy with the impact to the public," added Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat representing Baltimore and Howard counties.  Kasemeyer, chairman of the Budget and Taxation committee, said many of his panel's members want the fees put on hold for more study.

Under the proposed legislation, all localities' fees would be set and publicized by July 2014, with the fees to be effective a year later. That way, proponents say, property owners would have plenty of notice what they might owe, and what they might do to reduce or offset the cost.

"It's a horrendous idea," Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said of the proposed delay. The flow of storm-water washing dirt, fertilizer and chemicals into the bay from city and suburban land is growing, she said, and must be dealt with to comply with a federally mandated plan to reduce pollution fouling the bay. "The citizens are only going to have to pay more if they put it off," she concluded.

Prospects for the fee delay are far from certain.  Though the move apparently has the support of Senate leadership, it must clear both chambers in the session's final day.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said in an interview Sunday that she sympathized with those complaining their fees were too steep but was reluctant to put everything on hold.

"We're certainly going to listen to what they have to say," she said of delay proponents, "but it's troublesome to me."

Nonprofits, including churches, have been particularly vocal in objecting.  But McIntosh said Baltimore would be severely hamstrung if all nonprofits were exempted from the fee, as they own about a third of the city's land. 

The city needs revenue to maintain and upgrade its crumbling storm sewers, McIntosh pointed out, and to meet federal bay cleanup mandates for reducing polluted runoff from its streets.

"I think we need to think about what to do so we can move forward on much needed funding for infrastructure," she said, "yet make it fair for residents... I think we have to find a balance. I'm not sure we can find it in 24 hours."

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