Angry constituents, reluctant politicians result in stormwater fees all over the map
Under new Maryland law, some counties charge nothing while others want hefty fees.
Maryland’s 10 largest jurisdictions showed their independent stripes when choosing how to comply with the state’s new stormwater law.
The law, officially known as HB 987 but dubbed the “rain tax” by opponents, was passed in 2012. It required Baltimore City and the state’s nine largest counties to implement a stormwater utility fee by this July.
Some counties, like Howard and Charles, quietly determined how to set a fee for their different housing stocks, including apartments, townhouses and large single-family homes. Other counties, like Harford, initially considered legal action but instead decided to comply. Baltimore City and county wrestled with the demands of faith-based institutions to exempt them — the city, in particular, is home to many large churches, charities and The Associated, a collection of Jewish agencies — but ultimately assessed a fee.
In Anne Arundel, a new county executive vetoed the fee, only to see her veto overridden and the council return to the drawing board to craft a lower fee.
Prince George’s County was the last among the jurisdictions to announce its fee. But clean water advocates praised the suburban Washington jurisdiction for its communication efforts. The county clearly articulated why the fee was needed, and it is providing funding for residents who want to put in rain barrels that will qualify for reductions in the fee.
“They’ve actually thought about it in a pretty clever way,” said Brent Bolin, clean water coalition director for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
Bolin could not say the same about Frederick or Carroll counties. Frederick decided to charge its residents just a penny, a protest of what the county government considered an overreach into local politics by the General Assembly. Carroll elected to charge no fee at all. Its leaders said residents were already footing the bill for stormwater upgrades through general fund taxes.
“What we’ve told the state is that we’re already in compliance with the law. We’ve already been spending millions of dollars on remediation. More than $20 million, and that’s well-documented,” said Haven Shoemaker, a Carroll County commissioner. “Since we’re already doing it out of our general revenues, there’s no need to tax our residents any further.”
It’s unclear if the state will take any action against Carroll or Frederick. The Maryland Department of the Environment has written letters to each of the jurisdictions, asking them to provide copies of all the ordinances they’ve approved. The Maryland Attorney General’s office will review those plans once they’re received, said its spokesman, Alan Brody.
“We’re still in the information-gathering stage,” Brody said. “Upon submission of each county’s plans, they will be reviewed. If there are any questions, we’ll work to resolve them collaboratively.”
Blue Water Baltimore Executive Director Halle Van Der Gaag said the process of setting up the ordinances has been difficult because the MDE has yet to issue the stormwater permits, and the jurisdictions don’t know exactly what they will require. Originally, she said, clean water advocates had wanted a flat rate for all taxpayers. But legislators argued the burden should fall to the biggest jurisdictions, and those jurisdictions wanted the flexibility to decide what to charge.
“We’ve all kind of realized that it should have been approached differently,” Van Der Gaag said. “But we were trying to be pragmatic with the counties, and they were trying to be pragmatic with their constituents.”
As a result, the owner of a four-bedroom brick house in Baltimore County has to pay about $40. That same house in Frederick has to pay a penny. In Washington or Garrett Counties, the owner of that house is not obligated by law to pay anything.
The stormwater debate was among the ugliest in recent memory. Fox News Channel picked up the “rain tax” rhetoric and excoriated Maryland. Clean water advocates countered that the measure was not a tax, that it was a fee to pay for the damage caused by impervious surface, and not rain, but refocusing the public’s attention on the fee’s reason for being proved difficult.
“This triggered more of an outcry than anything I’ve seen in the years I’ve been in politics,” said Shoemaker, former mayor of Hampstead, in Carroll County.
Van Der Gaag suspects the outcry isn’t over. Prince George’s residents were to have received their bills in August, and Baltimore City will be mailing its bills in September.
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