Balto County Axes ‘Rain Tax’ But Offers No Plan to Fix Pollution

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Baltimore County Council Members voted unanimously to repeal stormwater fee. County Executive Kamenetz opposed fee repeal. Photo: B. Sorak
Baltimore County Council voted unanimously to repeal stormwater fee. Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz opposed fee repeal. Photo: B. Sorak

As expected, all seven Baltimore County Council members voted to axe the recently imposed stormwater fee. Unlike most other states with major U.S. cities, Maryland has punted on earnestly tackling our urban runoff pollution. The 2012 Watershed Protection and Restoration Program created a dedicated bucket of cash funded by homeowners and businesses to pay for federally-mandated urban runoff cleanup. Here’s what we know: Baltimore County residents and businesses won’t pay the fee, but the county will still invest $16 million per year to stop city grime from freely flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. The “rain tax” political process is disheartening. And, once again, our supposed “Chesapeake Bay jewel” is the football in another political game.

Who cares about urban runoff pollution? Uncle Sam does.

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA directed Maryland to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. As the chart below illustrates, Maryland significantly reduced the flow of chemicals from sewage treatment plants (down 60 percent) and farms (down 43 percent) into the Chesapeake Bay. But the grime, dirt, oil, chemicals, and trash continues to flow freely from our city streets into the Chesapeake Bay. Today, Maryland’s stormwater runoff almost equals potty pollution.

Urban stormwater runoff pollution just keeps growing.
Urban stormwater runoff pollution just keeps growing.

Dedicated fees actually work

Who knew the flush fee was such a success? In 1985, Maryland’s old sewage treatment plants were dumping 32 million pounds of pollution in the bay each year. In 2004 under Governor Ehrlich, home owners and businesses began paying a modest flush fee. The fee, tax, whatever you want to call it, created a keep-your-hands-off-$1-billion-pot-of-cash. To date, 67 sewage treatment plants have been upgraded, with the biggies under construction today. 

As shown above, Maryland ignored urban runoff pollution. Most large U.S. cities, actually 1,491 municipalities, charge a stormwater service fee to control and clean the polluted rain runoff that flows into waterways. The average U.S. homeowner fee is $4.74 per month; Baltimore County’s fee was $2.17.  A few of the 1,491 cities charging stormwater fees: L.A. (’93), Philadelphia (’09), D.C., Dallas, Houston, San Jose, 175 Florida communities including Miami (‘04), Louisville (’87), Annapolis (’03), Charlotte (’94), Cincinnati (’94), Oklahoma City (’95), Portland (’77), and Richmond (’09). Maryland is behind the stormwater eight ball.

Who was peeved about the rain tax?

Governor Hogan and institutions with lots of pavement hated the service fee. Hogan brilliantly marketed the fee as an evil rain tax. Hogan hit the ‘rain tax’ point so hard during his campaign that people got confused. Many thought they’d pay a tax each time it rained.

Businesses and congregations with huge parking lots got walloped with large and unexpected stormwater bills.  Both had a valid point as stormwater fees – based on square feet of hard surfaces  – could be quite high. Though incentives were in place to pay for fixes, and plenty of green groups were ready to help reduce and treat urban runoff, many institutions moaned instead of planting rain gardens and trees and installing permeable parking lots. Though County Executive Kamenetz supported the fee, clearly Baltimore County’s Council members had had enough.

“Hey buddy, where’s your stormwater financial plan?”

To appease Maryland’s larger urban counties and Baltimore City, the 2015 General Assembly approved a bill that allowed a municipality to repeal the fee, if the county proved to the Maryland Department of the Environment they had a plan to cover their stormwater expenses from current budgets.  That’s the fee-hater’s argument – stormwater expenses should come from current taxes. (Hasn’t for 25 years, just saying.)

Monday’s vote irked clean water groups and bay-lovers because the Baltimore County Council repealed the fee without offering the required financial explanation of how the county would pay for stormwater projects. 

Baltimore County’s Delegate Dana M. Stein (District 11), also an architect of the 2015 rain tax repeal bill, weighed in: “I’m disappointed with the County Council’s decision to phase out the stormwater fee.  The County will have to take money from other sources to pay for stormwater remediation.  This decision also makes it harder to make the case for increased State aid for other County capital projects, especially schools.”

Now everyone’s mad

Since Baltimore County repealed the fee, frustration is mounting, many groups began tackling stormwater projects because a reliable source of income was in place. Unlike short term grants, on-going and dedicated fees support long term and expensive projects. Even worse, when stormwater services aren’t dedicated, spending is at the whim of officials. 

Halle Van der Gaag, Blue Water Baltimore’s Executive Director led a group of 50 or so protesting the vote at the City Council meeting. “We are surprised and disappointed that Baltimore County Council would flaunt the law, and would take this action without having a solid and transparent plan for funding projects that will protect Baltimore County’s waterways from polluted runoff.  Blue Water Baltimore and the citizens who showed up at last night’s rally and who have been calling and emailing their representatives simply want to understand how this mandated work will be paid for.”

An outstanding question: Why didn’t Baltimore County craft a revised fee structure that appeased the business community? 

Bay advocates protested City Council's repeal.
Bay advocates protested the Balto City Council’s repeal.

Smelly Fish Kill

Ironically, the same week the Baltimore County Council axed the stormwater fee, 100,000 fish died in the county’s Middle River. The cause was a stormwater pollution domino effect. Too many nutrients, a.k.a. stormwater pollution, from Baltimore County’s paved surfaces flowed into Middle River and over-fertilized algae. The overabundant algae suddenly died last week releasing a toxin that killed the fish.

Maybe the Baltimore County Council and its leader should have hosted a retreat on the Middle River to figure out a better payment system. Watching 100,000 bass, perch, and menhaden die may have been motivation to find a better solution to the stormwater pollution fix.

The County Executive will have to find $16 million in the 2015 – 2016 budget to fund yearly stormwater fees. There may be wiggle room in the County’s $272 million water and sewer line item

Laurel Peltier
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