The General Assembly’s repeal of the storm water remediation fee requirement has rekindled the debate over the so-called “rain tax” in Baltimore County. Republicans on the County Council are vowing to push to repeal the county’s fee.
“We’ll go back as a council and see if we can go to work on eliminating this fee from, especially from our business community,” said Todd Crandell, one of three Republicans on the council. But County Executive Kevin Kamenetz says talk of repeal is a “phony issue,” because the county would still have to meet its federally mandated obligation to pay for projects to reduce storm water runoff that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay.
The General Assembly passed a bill during its 2012 session requiring Maryland’s 10 largest jurisdictions to set fees to pay for storm water projects. Baltimore County set its fee in the face of strong opposition and last month killed a proposal to all but do away with the fee. But this year, state lawmakers repealed the fee, requiring instead that counties demonstrate they are taking steps to reduce storm water runoff. “If we don’t use the fee to pay for these projects, then we have to take money out of other essential projects we’re pursuing,” said Kamenetz, “like school construction and repaving roads, and other important aspects of local government.”
At the same meeting the council chose not to gut the fee, it also agreed unanimously that if the legislature made any changes to the law, members would have another look. The General Assembly did, so Councilman David Marks, a Republican, said the council is obligated to revisit the issue. And fellow Republican Wade Kach said he is down for full repeal. “It would mean removing or cutting 16 million dollars from the budget in order to repeal the rain tax,” Kach said.
Opponents of the fee say one way to pay for the repeal is to dip into the county’s $200 million budget surplus. But in his budget message to the Council this week, Kamenetz defended keeping such a big financial cushion. He said that money helps the county keep its stellar credit rating. It’s set aside in case of emergencies and there is no guarantee, year in and year, out how much of a surplus the county will have. “That’s why Baltimore County has always used its fund balance to pay for one-time projects and not recurring expenses,” Kamenetz said.
Republicans used “rain tax repeal” as a rallying cry during last November’s election. Business owners had complained the fee was costing them thousands of dollars and cutting into their bottom line.
Last month, at Kamenetz’s request, the council rolled back the fee by about a third. But a few weeks later, the executive announced water and sewer rates would be going up to pay for upgrades to an aging system plagued with water main breaks and sewage overflows. Councilman Crandell questioned the timing of those two announcements. “I think it’s a bit disingenuous to offer a one third cut in a rain tax and then a month later hike water and sewage fees by 15 percent,” he said. Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Democrat, says that while the Council will reconsider the storm water remediation fee, the projects that fee is paying for are making a difference.
“We’ve got some great projects going on,” Bevins said. “We want to make sure they are funded. So it’s one more thing for the Council to dive into and take a look at.”
This year, Baltimore County is spending 34 million dollars on storm water projects, doing things like buying street sweepers, planting trees, and combating erosion.