Baltimore County Lawmakers Take Another Look At Stormwater Fees

Nov 20, 2014

The big Republican wins in the November election have led lawmakers in Baltimore and Annapolis to look toward rolling back the stormwater remediation fees imposed after the 2012 General Assembly session. The fees have been derided by opponents as a “rain tax.”

Here is how they work in Baltimore County. Say you own a single family home. It’s not too big a deal; the fee is about $39 a year. But if you own a business, it’s more complicated. Your bill depends on what kind of surface your property has. 

Nancy Correlli, one of the owners of the Baltimore Boating Center on Sue Creek in Essex, says she didn’t know what to expect when she opened her first bill last year. It was $4,700. “I did not want to tell the family,” Correlli recalled. “How do I tell them we owe another $4,700? And where was it going to come from?”

On a walk around the Boating Center one recent rainy morning, she said the county is taxing the surfaces of the four acre property it considers impervious. In other words, the water won’t soak into the ground, but will run off into the creek instead. That includes a huge gravel parking lot. But Correlli says the gravel is letting the rain seep through. “But as you can see, there is no water,” Correlli says. “It’s raining and it’s going through it. There’s grass growing through it.”

Governor-elect Larry Hogan made getting rid of the stormwater  fee a pillar of his campaign. And that hasn’t gone unnoticed in Baltimore County, where Hogan won with nearly 60 percent of the vote. State Senator Jim Brochin, a Democrat whose district stretches from Towson to the Pennsylvania line, says that changes the dynamic. “I think that the sweep in Baltimore County,” he says, “that 60 percent of Baltimore County elected a Republican governor shows in my mind that there’s a mandate for change and there’s a mandate to repeal the rain tax.” Brochin says he will try to do just that when the General Assembly convenes in January.

The stormwater remediation fee, designed to satisfy a federal mandate, requires the ten largest localities in the state, including Baltimore County, to charge fees to pay for projects that cut back on storm water runoff polluting the Chesapeake Bay.

How much the localities charge is up to them. And this is where the Baltimore County Council and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz come in. They passed Baltimore County’s version and have been hearing the complaints ever since.

So if the state legislature doesn’t act, Republican council member David Marks says the council may. “I think there is definitely some interest among members of both parties in passing some relief for that tax,” he said. “It was vigorously opposed by the two Republicans when it was passed.”

And now that the party picked up a seat on Election Day, there will be three Republicans on the seven-member Council.

Marks says the county could tap into its $200 million surplus for the projects and use some of the money to reduce the tax rate.

But County Council Chair Cathy Bevins, a Democrat, says they have to be careful not to drain the surplus. According to the county, it will cost $400 million to meet all of its storm water management goals. Bevins says the money, $34 million this year, is being spent on worthwhile projects. “People want their trees planted,” Bevins said. “They want their streams restored. They want this garbage to stop going into our waterways.”

She says the council has been tweaking the law. For instance, non-profits and marinas can now qualify for a tax break.

County Executive Kamanetz declined to be interviewed. A spokesman says that’s because the politics of the so-called rain tax are in a “state of flux”.