Backlash from stormwater fee catches advocates off guard
Complaints are a wake-up call that groups need to return to grass-roots efforts to get message out on this long-ignored source of pollution.
For longtime stormwater advocates, 2013 should have been a celebratory time. After four years of trying, they had finally persuaded the Maryland General Assembly to pass a bill requiring a stormwater fee for large urban areas. Each of the state's nine largest counties and Baltimore City had begun to develop fees that would help them address this long-ignored source of pollution that is projected to grow as more people move into population centers.
But the environmental advocates didn't count on the deluge of complaints over the fees — some from conservatives averse to paying for any new government programs, some from homeowners angry over costs and many from religious organizations who feared they were staring at thousands of dollars in fees. Before long, Fox News and conservative legislators dubbed the fee a "rain tax," and many county commissioners and county council members made rumblings about suing the state or refusing to pay it. Amid all of the rhetoric, many homeowners remained confused about what the fees would pay for and why stormwater caused pollution.
The backlash surprised some environmentalists, and has caused some jurisdictions to consider lower fees that could mean fewer improvements to their stormwater systems. But other environmentalists have said they understand the concerns and wish they had done a better job of communicating the importance of the fee and how it would be used.
"I feel like we've lost the message game on this," said Halle Van Der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore. "This uproar is totally logical. However, it could have been mitigated."
Van Der Gaag's group, which was formed two years ago from a merger of several smaller watershed groups in Baltimore City and County, has been pushing for a fee on impervious surfaces. She said her group began talking to communities about the fee and how they could lower their costs with rain gardens and other best management practices. But the first question people asked was, "how much will I be paying?" And she didn't have an answer because the city didn't begin to create its fee structure until early 2013. It still hasn't finalized its plans.
All jurisdictions need to have a structure in place by July 1.
Part of the problem, observers have said, is that the environmental community is good at going to state legislatures and lobbying for legislation, but has lost some of its grassroots community-building. There is not a lot of door-to-door canvassing compared with decades past. Once the law passed, the stormwater advocates got busy working with the counties trying to make the legislation as strong as it could be.
That was the case with South River Federation Executive Director Erik Michelsen, who lobbied the legislature to pass the 2012 bill, and then hunkered down with county officials
to help draft Anne Arundel's stormwater utility fee schedule. Michelsen's county already had its own local bill, and he was working with a group to come up with a fair way to assess the costs per homeowner and business owner.
"We had our noses down pretty deeply at that point," he said. "There's probably enough blame to go around, in terms of folks not being aware of it…
"I'm so deep in these things that I find it hard to believe people haven't been paying attention."
But County Executive Laura Neuman was paying attention. Neuman was appointed to replace John Leopold, who resigned after being convicted of misconduct in office. After just a few weeks on the job, she vetoed the law that Michelsen and his colleagues had been crafting for more than a year. She said that not enough people were aware of the fee, and that the county needed more time to comply with the state mandate.
The County Council overrode her veto, but it agreed to make some changes in the bill so the fees weren't so onerous on single-family homeowners.
Other counties, including Harford, Baltimore and Howard, approved their stormwater fees, but not without strong opposition. The Baltimore County Council considered delaying it after complaints from many religious organizations that own property. Harford decided to only ask residents to pay 10 percent of their fees the first year. (See "Stormwater Funding by County,".above.)
Part of the problem became how the stormwater fee was branded. The Rain Tax rhetoric was not accurate — it's not a tax and it's not on rain. Instead, it is a fee that is assessed on impervious surfaces such as roofs and pavements and the pollution that comes from them. The difference between a tax and fee is that if money is collected to pay for a service — such as sewage treatment or drinking water, or in this case, the building of improved stormwater systems — it is a fee. If it is collected to pay for the general work of government it is a tax. Nevertheless, newspaper reporters began to use "rain tax," albeit in quotes, and it became the default phrase for describing the fee.
Similar campaigns have hurt the stormwater cause in other states and counties, said Eric Eckl, the owner of Water Words That Work, a branding company that helps environmentalists and water advocates promote pollution-reduction programs.
"A common thread in the success stories is to call it something other than a stormwater utility," Eckl said. "We generally recommend to clients that they call it a runoff management fee."
Eckl, who said he hadn't been following the situation closely in Maryland, added that the word "tax" is "a really bad word, and that is why opponents use it. Proponents should always describe it as a fee, and they should stress the service."
In matters of water, the difference between a tax and a fee is a big one.
In 2004, Gov. Robert Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican governor in three decades, helped pass what became known as the "flush tax," a $2.50 monthly fee added to every water bill in the state. The money is used to upgrade the state's 65 major wastewater treatment plants to significantly reduce nitrogen and phosphorus discharges.
But the U.S. Navy refused to pay it, arguing that it is tax-exempt. The Ehrlich administration countered that the tax was really a fee.
The state and the Navy never resolved their differences over semantics. But in 2006, the Department of Defense agreed to pay $22 million to upgrade its own sewage-treatment plants.
With the exception of Navy attorneys and septic tank users, most Maryland residents didn't object to the flush tax. They seemed to grasp that keeping sewage out of the Chesapeake was a good idea. They don't necessarily feel the same way about stormwater, Van Der Gaag said. In part, that's because they don't understand the chemicals that are in it and the danger they pose to local streams. In part, she said, it's because they assume stormwater is treated before it enters the waterways. In most cases, it is not.
Environmental advocates say they will continue to talk about the stormwater charge as a fee. They also hope to temper the anger over the fee with a new message: This isn't your fault. It's all of our faults.
"People get very defensive. They say, 'I'm not a polluter. I didn't do anything here.' The goal is not to pass blame. There are legacy impacts here," Michelsen said. "This is a shared bill. It's our bill as a community. We couldn't possibly pay it all, but we need to chip away at it, because it's been allowed to languish for so long."
Stormwater Funding by County
A law passed in the 2012 Maryland General Assembly requires the state's nine largest counties, plus the city of Baltimore, to impose fees by July 1 to fund stormwater improvements. Here's how they're doing it.
Anne Arundel: The council passed a fee structure earlier this year. Homeowners were to pay $34, $85 or $170, depending on the type of home. Commercial buildings were to pay based on square footage; churches were to pay $1. But new County Executive Laura Neuman vetoed the fee. The council overrode her veto, but agreed to make some changes to the stormwater bill. Owners of nonresidential properties still must pay based on the percentage of their lot that's covered by impervious surfaces, such as parking lots and rooftops.
But they'll be capped at the equivalent of 25 percent of their annual property tax, instead of 35 percent in the original version of the stormwater fee. And for any fee that is greater than $500 per year, there will be a three-year phase-in period under the bill passed May 20.
- Baltimore County: The county debated the fees and in April passed a schedule where businesses and commercial properties will pay a rate of $69 per 2,000 square feet of impervious or hard surfaces. Credits are available for businesses if they take steps to control stormwater. Single-family homes of 2,000 square feet and nonprofits will pay $36; condo owners will pay $29, and owners of duplexes and townhouses will pay $18.
- Baltimore City: Under the administration's plan, single-family homes would be charged $48 to $144 a year, while commercial properties and apartment buildings would have to pay $72 per 1,050 square feet per year. But Baltimore City is hoping to use the fee to reduce its high property taxes. It already spends $10 million on stormwater, so it plans to subtract that from the $28 million its new fee would raise, and use about $6.7 million of that to cut property taxes. Environmentalists dislike this plan, particularly because the city has more impervious surface than any other jurisdiction and is saddled with many infrastructure problems. (See "It's time to pay the piper as cities' aging infrastructures need updating," May 2013)
- Carroll County: Officials have created an advisory group to study the issue. Several lawmakers there have railed against the fee, and one suggested it be "one penny per citizen."
- Charles County: As the Bay Journal went to press, officials hadn't settled on a fee. But the working proposal is to divide the county into Equivalent Resident Units, or ERUs. The average impervious surface, or one ERU, is 3,255 square feet in Charles, one of the state's fastest-growing counties and a bedroom community for Washington, DC. Each ERU would pay $32; a townhouse would pay about half of that, and a condo about a third. Businesses would also be assessed based on their ERUs.
- Frederick County: The westernmost county that has to pay the fee, Frederick is actually planning to charge a penny per property.
- Harford County: After much debate, the council passed a flat fee of $125 year for residential properties and a fee of $7 per 500 square feet of impervious area of commercial, industrial and apartment structures. Residents and business owners are required to pay only 10 percent of the rates over the next year, leading a local newspaper to call it a "watered-down" fee.
- Howard County: Both commercial and residential property owners will be charged $15 per 500 square feet of impervious surface. For the average residential property owner that would be $105 annually.
- Montgomery County: Since about 2002, residents have been paying between $28 and $170, depending on house size. Montgomery was the only county that was grandfathered in because it had a fee. But the county nonetheless passed a law that would extend its fee to businesses and nonprofits.
- Prince George's County: Like Montgomery, this suburban DC county already has a stormwater fee in place. County officials are reviewing whether the program satisfies the new law.