'Rain tax' remains a hot-button issue heading into Maryland elections

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - The debate over Maryland’s stormwater fee could stretch into 2015.

This year’s legislative session is still a few weeks from ending, but people on both sides of the debate are already looking ahead.

One key point – whether state government buildings should be exempt from the two-year-old  mandate, which required the state’s 10 largest jurisdictions pass a stormwater fee to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Alison Prost, Maryland’s executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the law was amended at the last minute to exempt state government buildings from being charged the fee.

Officials with the nonprofit agreed to it to get the law passed, but Prost said they want to see that change.

“We feel it is very important for everybody to take responsibility,” Prost said. “The bottom line is, polluted runoff doesn’t know if you’re a private or a commercial or a government property.”

SEE MORE: Environmental groups pushing to keep stormwater fees in place

Prost said it’s difficult to say how much more money would be generated if government buildings were included in the fee, because each local government implemented a different fee structure.

This year was the first year for the controversial fee, dubbed the rain tax by opponents. Some legislators took steps to see it would be the last.

But none were successful. Measures seeking to repeal the law failed.

Stormwater is one of the Chesapeake Bay’s main sources of pollution, and the law was cheered by environmentalists who said the money raised would allow Maryland to meet federal requirements for cleaning up the Bay. It was up to each individual jurisdiction to determine their fees.

Conservatives criticized the measure. They argue it’s being applied unevenly, and cash-strapped residents don’t need another yearly bill.

Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard County, introduced a Senate bill aimed at repealing the mandate. It died in committee.

But Kittleman, a candidate for Howard County executive, said opponents of the law scored a big win  this year when Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler exempted Carroll County from the stormwater fee.

County commissioners there refused to pass a fee, saying they would pay for stormwater remediation projects out of county revenues.

After initially telling Carroll County officials they were in violation of the 2012 mandate , the Attorney General’s Office said they were allowed to use existing money to pay for water quality projects. He predicted more counties may opt out of the stormwater fee if they can find a way to pay for projects with money they already have.

SEE MORE: Battle over the rain tax far from over

“I believe that just because you have a new program, doesn’t mean you have to have a new tax,” Kittleman said.

And it’s likely to be a hot campaign topic over the next eight months, he said.

“It will be an issue in my election,” Kittleman said.

Stormwater has already surfaced as a point of debate in the race for Anne Arundel County executive, with incumbent Laura Neuman attacking her primary challenger, Del. Steve Schuh, for his vote in favor of the fee.

Les Knapp, director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Counties, said he expects a push next year from environmentalists who want to see state government buildings included in the law.

Like Kittleman, he predicts it will be an election issue.

“That could change the dynamic of how the General Assembly pursues this,” he said.

Revenue varies

The stormwater fees levied by nine counties and Baltimore City vary widely in how much money they’ve raised over the last year.

So do the individual fees themselves, as well as the cleanup requirements set by the federal government for each county.

SEE MORE: Rain tax plans to go into effect

Homeowners in Anne Arundel County, for example, pay an average of $85 per year in stormwater fees, while commercial property owners pay based on the amount of impervious surface they have.

In Charles County, residential and commercial property owners alike pay a flat annual fee of $43.

In Frederick County, everyone pays a penny.

And in Carroll County, they pay nothing.

Carroll County designated $4 million in its 2014 budget to cover stormwater projects said Roberta  Windham, a spokesman for the commissioners.

“I think in some jurisdictions, they were behind the curve,” she said. “But we were funding projects all along.”

In Baltimore City, where residents pay $40, $60 or $120 per year, depending on what type of property they own, the fee raised $16.7 million in 2014. The money will go toward repairing dilapidated culverts, storm drains and streams.

City officials said some of the big projects include rehabilitating the Highlandtown Stormwater Pumping Station, which has numerous mechanical problems, restoring the East Stony Run Stream and unclogging inlets throughout the city.

The city’s spending on water quality projects is projected to increase over the next three years, hitting $43 million in 2017. Baltimore is

expected to raise $26.3 million from the stormwater fee that year.

Howard County taxpayers paid $10.4 million in stormwater fees in 2014.

Mark Richmond, division chief of Howard County’s stormwater improvement division, said most of the projects – such as improvements to the Savage branch of the Howard County library—were already on the county’s to-do list.

In Baltimore County, the fee raised $24.3 million.

Vince Gardina, director of Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability, said the county’s list of projects – including stream restoration, shoreline upgrades and retrofitting storm drains – is based on a series of small watershed action plans.

The county is also using another $10 million from the Metropolitan District Fund – which goes in part toward sewer line maintenance—to supplement the stormwater projects.

About 8 percent of the money goes toward overhead costs, Gardina said. He said the county hired 21 people to help implement the program, including engineers and inspectors.

“This is a dedicated fee to be used for water quality and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay,” Gardina said. “It cannot be used for anything else.”

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