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"Rain Tax" Repeal: Campaign Fodder But a Budget Headache

Storm Drain
Nick Sherman via flickr
Storm Drain
Storm Drain
Credit Nick Sherman via flickr
Storm Drain

Repealing the storm water remediation fee, what opponents call the rain tax, was a rallying cry for Republicans in the November election. But nearly four months later the controversial state law continues to vex both local officials and legislators in Annapolis.

The battle over the fee, created to meet a federal mandate to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, is being waged on multiple fronts. The Baltimore County Council is to take up a proposal today to roll back the fee by about a third. County Executive KevinKamenetzsays that will make it more reasonable for homeowners and businesses.

But newly elected councilman ToddCrandell, a Republican who represents theDundalkarea, says he will offer an amendment to abolish the fee altogether. He says the county can afford it. “We’re somewhere around a 200 million dollar budget surplus,”Crandellsays. “So there is money there.” But that would have to get through the council and signed byKamenetz. And council chairwoman CathyBevinsisn’t so sure that would happen. She represents a district with a lot of water front property owners who, she says, want the county to do more to clean the bay and reduce runoff. And that costs money. The county has budgeted $34 million dollars for storm water projects this year, doing things like buying street sweepers, planting trees, and combating soil erosion.

It's price tags like that that mean it won’t be easy for local governments to ditch the fee. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered Maryland to reduce the amount of pollution in the storm water that runs off streets, alleys, farm fields, lawns and golf courses into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. So the state has required the nine largest counties and Baltimore City to create the fee to set up a dedicated fund to pay for storm water cleanup projects.

Harford County passed a fee, but recently repealed it. Cindy Mumby, a spokeswoman for County Executive Barry Glassman, says they checked with the State Attorney General’s office to make sure that was legal. “We feel comfortable that we’ve advised them of what we’re doing and that they feel comfortable with what we’re doing so far,” she said. But a spokesman for Attorney General BrianFroshsaid he has given no such assurances toHarfordCounty. 

Carroll County is getting a pass from the state because commissioners there set up another funding source for storm water projects.MumbysaidGlassmanplans to do something similar inHarford, use a portion of a tax they already collect, the recordation tax, as a substitute for the storm water fee. “When the rain tax was repealed, it was never about avoiding our responsibility,”Mumbysaid. “It was about finding a more equitable, a more fair way to get the job done.”

Yet Alison Proust, the Maryland Executive Director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is skeptical of those plans. She says local governments were not moving fast enough on storm water projects before the fee was adopted and worries might happen if the fee is eliminated. “What are they going to supplement it with, and will they be able to keep up this accelerated pace of work,”Proustwondered. “Or are they going to back to the pace of work they were doing before?”

A spokesman for Howard County Executive AllanKittlemansaid he would like to reduce or eliminate the fee, but his county already has a $15 million budget shortfall. In Anne Arundel, the County Executive is open to the idea, but a spokesman says repealing the fee would create a hole in the county budget.

Meantime, the General Assembly is looking at proposals to either scrap the fee altogether, or leave it up to the localities to decide whether they want to levy it. Senator JimBrochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, opposes the fee, but says the storm water projects have to be done. He said the localities should be able to decide for themselves how to pay for them. We need to clarify this and make sure the counties are held harmless if they’re going to choose not to impose a tax,” he said. Brochinis optimistic legislation will pass the Senate, but the House of Delegates is another matter. Speaker Michael Busch says he wants the storm water remediation fee to remain in place.

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John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2