By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun
10:20 PM EDT, April 15, 2013
Ridiculed by some as a "rain tax" and a symbol of government overreach in taxes, storm water management fees mandated by the state were approved Monday by Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
The Baltimore County Council approved its fee structure 5-2, along party lines, with Republicans David Marks of Perry Hall and Todd Huff of Lutherville voting against it. The Anne Arundel County Council voted 4-3 to approve its version of stormwater fees.
Stormwater runoff is blamed for being a major source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. As rainwater runs off hard surfaces — roofs, driveways and parking lots — it picks up pollutants that ultimately run into the bay.
Last year the state legislature mandated a fee to pay for projects that will benefit bay water quality. Ten jurisdictions, including Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties, must establish a stormwater fee structure by July 1. The state law exempts government-owned properties from the fee.
Before Monday's vote, Marks said he had heard frustration from people "across the political spectrum" about fees and taxes.
"Maryland is becoming known as a state that just taxes everything that moves," he said. "There's just raw anger about the number of taxes that are going up in the state."
Under Baltimore County's plan, owners of single-family homes will pay $39 annually, town house owners $21 and condo owners $32. Business property owners will pay based on a formula that sets a fee for every square foot of impervious surface.
The council added an amendment to lower the fees by more than 40 percent for nonprofit groups. Leaders of nonprofit and religious organizations had said they would have faced bills costing thousands of dollars per year under the initial proposal, which put them in a "business and institution" category.
The bill passed even though some council members complained it was being rushed without enough time for residents to speak out. The county held no public hearing on the issue.
"I still don't like the bill, and I think there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered," said Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, after the vote.
Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, said "I don't like this bill," but said the council had little choice but to approve it.
The Anne Arundel County Council set a rate of $85 for a single-family home, though town houses and condos would pay less.
As in Baltimore County, nonresidential properties in Anne Arundel would be charged based on the amount of impervious surface they have. Businesses whose fee would top $500 would see it phased in.
Still, Council Chairman Jerry Walker, a Gambrills Republican, predicted the fee would "kill small businesses," especially because it is coming at the same time as an increase in state gas tax takes effect.
Experts estimate Anne Arundel will have to raise nearly $1 billion by 2026 to build infrastructure to meet the environmental goals set by the state and federal governments.
Councilmen Walker, Pasadena Republican Derek Fink and Severn Democrat Peter Smith voted against the bill. Three Democrats and one Republican made up the majority.
In recent weeks, the "rain tax" nickname for the stormwater fee has put Maryland on the national stage. When Howard County passed its rate structure on March 28, the web site The Drudge Report declared the county had set a "new tax on rain." This past weekend, a Fox News commentator dubbed the state mandate "a tax on civilization itself."
Blair Lee, CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring commentator for WBAL radio and The Business Gazette, noted the trickle-down effect in his Gazette column, skewering the Environmental Protection Agency and saying said state lawmakers set up a mechanism for local officials to fund the program.
Walker embraced the rain tax nickname, calling it "100 percent accurate. They've run out of ways to tax us, so they are taxing us on the rain."
But fellow Anne Arundel Council member Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat, said it's curious snipes at the stormwater fee did not arise last year — when Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the measure into law — but more recently, as O'Malley seriously considers a 2016 presidential run.
"When you are on a national stage, somebody is going to look at you and attack you for whatever they can," Trumbauer said.
Similar taxes have been enacted in Philadelphia, Richmond and other cities, he said. "I think this is a proven model."
Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.
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