Maryland communities adjusting to 'rain tax'

At the Russett Community Association, the bills kept rolling in.

Last summer, vice president Tim Reyburn received three bills from Anne Arundel County charging the homeowners’ association about $1,200 in stormwater fees for fiscal year 2014.

Little did he know that was only the beginning.

About seven months later, the association got 15 more bills from the county, charging them another $20,000. Confused and a little stressed about budgeting for the new bills, Reyburn called county officials.

What they told him made his head spin.

The developer who created the west Anne Arundel County community two decades ago never transferred the titles of the properties to their correct owners, so the county had the wrong information in its database. Stormwater bills were being sent to offices that didn’t even exist anymore, Reyburn said.

By the time the county straightened things out, thousands of dollars in late fees were tacked onto the bills.

Reyburn also learned 40 more bills were on the way, and when everything was added up, the total hovered around $38,000.

“That’s ridiculous,” Reyburn said.

The Russett Community Association was among the 337 property owners who filed appeals with Anne Arundel County over their stormwater bills. The county knocked Russett’s bills down to $12,000 on appeal, though the full fee will be around $30,000 once the stormwater remediation program is fully phased in by 2016.   

“They should be able to send one bill on one piece of paper and save the taxpayer an (expletive deleted) amount of money,” Reyburn said.  

In 2012, the General Assembly passed a law that required Maryland’s 10 largest counties (which include Baltimore City) enact a stormwater fee . Carroll County was the only one of the 10 that declined to pass the fee, often derided as the “rain tax” by conservatives. County commissioners said they’d pay for stormwater projects out of county revenues.

The money raised is to be used for water quality projects aimed at meeting federal deadlines for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Each county had the authority to determine what its fee would be. The fees, which had to be implemented by July 1, 2013, vary widely.

Depending on which county they’re in, property owners may appeal their bills on several different grounds. Examples include if they think government made an error, if they’ve installed stormwater controls on their land, if they’re a disabled veteran or if they have a financial hardship.

The state mandate said counties had to include an appeals process in their local stormwater legislation, said Elaine Lutz, Maryland staff attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“It left all the details up to each jurisdiction,” Lutz said.

Among the counties that implemented the stormwater fee, appeals were relatively rare.

Erik Michelson, the administrator of the Anne Arundel County fee, said 198 of the appeals were granted. Another 109 were denied, and 30 are under review.

Many of those appealing their fees disputed the amount of impervious surface the county said they had. For example, they may have lived in a small house on a big lot, Michelson said.

The Russett Community Association was among between 20 and 30 homeowners’ associations that contacted the county to appeal their stormwater fees, Michelson said.

“A couple of the cases we had were from community associations that had 50 or 60 parcels, and it was a bit of a puzzle putting those pieces together,” Michelson said.

Considering the county sent out 190,000 bills, a few hundred requests for appeals didn’t seem out of character, Michelson said.

He expects that number to level off in coming years.

“I think in the first year, we were going to have some cleaning up of that data,” Michelson said.

The deadline to appeal this year’s stormwater bill is June 30, and the county recently extended next year’s deadline to Sept. 30, 2015.

Baltimore City officials sent out 200,000 bills to city property owners, and 473 filed appeals, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city’s Department of Public Works.

“The number is very small,” Kocher said in an email, adding that’s less than 0.2 percent of property owners.

Fifty-seven of the requests qualified for a vacant lot credit, meaning the property had less than 50 square feet of impervious surface.

Eighteen of the requests resulted in an adjustment of the property owner’s bill, based on changes since the initial surface measurement, errors in the measurement or further site inspection, Kocher said.

Howard County officials received 101 appeals out of about 92,000 properties, and slightly more than half of them were granted, county spokeswoman Karen Spicer said.

Of those 52 appeals, 43 of them were granted due to errors in Howard County’s data collection or billing process. Others were granted due to incorrect land use classifications, changes to agricultural plans, wrong impervious surface calculations and property sizes being recorded incorrectly.

Harford County received 48 stormwater appeals in 2013, out of slightly more than 80,000 properties.

Nineteen were denied and 29 were approved due to errors in the calculation of impervious surface and properties being wrongly identified. The county also approved seven appeals for financial hardships.

Some of the errors were the result of a property having a structure removed, county officials said. In another case, information for a local cemetery association wasn’t updated, and the bill went to the wrong address.

Five property owners in Charles County appealed their stormwater bills, and all five were granted—two for disabled veterans, two for having no impervious surface and one for financial hardship.

Like in Harford County, two of the appeals were due to structures being removed from a property before the bills went out.

Almost 49,000 property owners in Charles County pay a flat rate of $43 per year.

“I didn’t really expect there to be that many, because we do have a flat rate and it’s not that high,” said Charles Rice, the county’s program manager for environmental programs. “We were doing something new, so it was a little bit of a learning curve initially.”

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