Why Hogan Is Wrong About the ‘Rain Tax’

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1 inch of rain on 1 acre of hard surface creates 27,000 gallons of yucky polluted runoff. Courtesy: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Rain used to be fun, cleansing, even peaceful. It was about snuggling under blankets and baking cookies. Not anymore. Rain is now a weather event that can be taxed.  Rain is now urban polluted runoff. It’s even a political marketing tool. Rain helped a governor win an election.

While I think Hogan is wrong about the stormwater fee repeal, I must hand it to him, he’s a keen marketer. Rebranding the 2012 Maryland Stormwater Management Program into the “rain tax” was brilliant. Equating a fee with evil taxes made stormwater pollution,  a confusing concept, a “bad” idea.

But, Maryland had 25 years to clean up our stormwater act and now it’s so bad, we’re in violation of the Clean Water Act. Our supposed state treasure should be a point of pride.  It seems time to walk the I-love-the-Chesapeake-Bay talk and fix the stormwater pollution problem with consistent and dedicated fees that can’t be touched by politicians when budgets get tight.  

Four reasons Hogan got it wrong

1. Maryland has to reduce stormwater pollution, it’s not a choice. We got busted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Water Act.

2. Mandated Chesapeake Bay clean-up fees work. The “flush fee” cut potty pollution by 60+ percent. There’s more work to do, though.

3. Maryland is behind the times charging stormwater fees. 1,400 cities charge a “rain tax.” Los Angeles has since 1993.

4. Urban runoff pollution is getting worse. How will repealing the fee fix the pollution?

While sewage waste and agriculture bay pollution drops, urban runoff muck just grows.
While sewage waste and agriculture bay pollution drops, urban runoff muck just grows.

WTH is stormwater runoff pollution?

I never gave a thought to where all the dirt, trash, lawn fertilizer, leaves, plastic bags and foam cups went after they washed away in a nice rain. I don’t think I’m alone. In our massive, 64,000-acre watershed, paradise was paved and most rivers and streams were re-routed into big storm drain pipes. Baltimore’s storm drain system was first created in the 1870s. All the rain that hits a hard surface goes into gutters that feed into the underground stormwater pipe system. All storm drains lead to one place – the Chesapeake Bay. Unfiltered. Urban stormwater is actually disgusting, toxic, and unhealthy for humans and the ecosystem.

1. The fee was put in place because Maryland got busted by the EPA

The stormwater fee was put in place to make sure that Maryland’s 10 big polluting jurisdictions reduced bay pollution as required by The Clean Water Act.  The Chesapeake Bay was officially in violation of this major federal environmental law which was created to ensure Americans don’t treat our waterways like toilets. The law’s basic goal is to keep waterways safe and clean for people, fish, plants and wildlife. 

Maryland addressed the sewage treatment plants (see below) and agriculture took key steps to reducing fertilizer runoff, but stormwater pollution was the 600 pound gorilla in the room. In 25 years, Maryland had done so little, stormwater polluted runoff is growing! If Maryland misses the pollution targets set forth by the EPA, Baltimore City alone could face fines up to $13.5 million a year and lose key construction permits. 

2. Maryland’s Flush Fee is a huge success. Dedicated fees clean up pollution.

For the good news, check out our recent article: Who Knew? The Chesapeake Bay Flush Fee is a success. Enacted by then Republican Governor Ehrlich, the program has resulted in a 60-70 percent drop in nitrogen and phosphorous leaving sewage treatment plants (see chart above.) Better yet, scientists confirm that after nitrogen dropped from the sewage plants polluting the Upper Patuxent, Mattawoman Creek and Upper Potomac River, each waterway has fewer algal blooms and the sea grasses are coming back. Fishies and birds are returning, too. Where’s the celebration?

3. MD is way behind. Everyone charges stormwater fees

If Maryland is the “laughingstock” of the country for enacting a stormwater fee, as Hogan claims, then so is: Los Angeles (’93), Philadelphia (’09), Washington D.C., San Jose, 175 Florida communities including Miami (‘04), Louisville (’87), Annapolis (’03), Charlotte (’94), Cincinnati (’94), Oklahoma City (’95), Portland (’77), Richmond (’09) and Seattle (’88). For heaven’s sake, Dallas, the most “red” city in the U.S., charges a stormwater fee. I may have missed a few big cities as I scrolled through the list of 1,417 mostly waterside municipalities that charge their citizens dedicated fees to manage their city’s stormwater pollution.

4. What’s Hogan’s plan? Why would the sun start rising from the north now?

In 2017, Maryland will get its midterm grade from the EPA on how well we’re tackling urban runoff pollution. With Hogan wanting to scrap the fee and Senate President Miller wanting to give each jurisdiction the choice to charge the fee, how would a jurisdiction now be able to scrap together the funds from cash-strapped county budgets to better manage stormwater pollution? The EPA has many consequences to hand out to our state if we whiff, from financial fines to lost development permits.

Ironically, the 2012 group of stormwater legislators heeded each jurisdiction’s request to let each municipality choose the fee and implement their choice of projects. Each jurisdiction has total control of how they choose to reduce their pollutants. And, each citizen, business and non-profit pays based on the size of their home or area of hard surface, the same as many other communities in our country.

I’m hopeful that Hogan will fulfill his claim that he’s “going to be the best environmental governor that’s ever served.” Fix the fees if needed, but eliminating, or letting each jurisdiction decide to even charge the fee (which is really eliminating them), ensures nothing gets done. 

We got stuck with this mess because since the disco-era, elected officials chose to kick the stormwater pollution can down the gutter. The can is at our feet now.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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3 COMMENTS

  1. What proponents don’t know about the “rain tax’ is how there are gross errors in how the tax is calculated. I can give you two prime examples that affected me directly.MD uses a satellite image of your property which is supposed to match your property lines. They then deduce the ratio of pervious to impervious surfaces. In my case, the lines they used bore no relationship to the my actual property lines. It included over 2800 sq. ft of my neighbors driveway. Second miscalculation. I have a small “outlot” adjacent to my property that is 100% undeveloped. MD treated this property as 100% impervious surfaces. When I appealed they stated it was a known “glitch”in the system. However, they do not correct it until the individual disputes the charge. In other words guilty until proven innocent. Lastly if you have been active in water remediation by developing containment systems, etc. MD doesn’t assume you have done that unless you notify them. Again they err that you don’t have any remediation system. You only will notice that buried deep in the site. Lastly, since the tax is included in your real estate bill, most homeowners are not aware of the tax, how it is calculated. MD is not transparent on this tax and have a bad history of errors in implementation. I urge all homowners to review their site photos to determine if they are being taxed properly.

    • Excellent advice.
      Execution can be dicey, and it shouldn’t be. Glad you got help, but what a hassle. To me, MD. agencies need to get in this century when it comes to billing, data, and processes. (I could write a novel on fixing our water bill and electric bill. $1,500 in errors. Agggh.)

      In Baltimore City, homeowners see their stormwater fee on the back of the water bill. $15/qtr if home is less than 1,500 sq. ft. and $30, if home is more.

      BUT, like you said, work is left to citizen and it should be easier. Case in point, the 900 religious orgs within the City had to mail in their exemption forms to avoid being charged on school and the “places of faith’ sq. footage. There was a huge push at the diocese levels to educate all their parishes to get the forms in.

  2. This fee is an excellent idea. We desperately need to slow down, if not reverse, the decay of the Bay. When I was a child I couldn’t go swimming without stepping on a crab. Now they’re few and far-between, and a generation of children are growing up thinking that’s normal.
    The biggest mistake in this issue was letting it become known as a “rain tax”. It’s not, it’s a runoff tax. When we change surface features from beneficial to destructive, the conservative thing to do would be to take responsibility for our actions.

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