Tag Archives: rain tax

Rainy Day in Annapolis Towne

(Note: This article appeared in the inaugural issue of Center Maryland Magazine.)

By Barry Rascovar

It is often true that legislative reforms require a second round of revisions to make them workable. That’s the case with the misnamed “rain tax.”

Passed in 2012, this stormwater remediation measure attacks a troubling problem – pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from pet waste, sediment, fertilizers, pesticides and auto fluids. Storms wash this scum off urban and suburban streets, parking lots and rooftops. It winds up in the bay.

Impervious surface

Impervious Surface

This is a huge concern for those who treasure Maryland’s most precious resource.

For instance, stormwater pollutants account for 37 percent of nitrogen in the Magothy River, 94 percent of excess phosphorus, and virtually all sediment and bacterial contaminants.

Fifteen percent of the bay’s nitrogen stems from urban and suburban storm runoff.

The 2012 statute requires Baltimore City and nine counties to enact a fee for stormwater improvements. It’s part of the state’s compliance with Washington’s “pollution diet” for the bay.

Permeable Surface

Permeable Surface

Little controversy surrounded the 2012 bill, but as implementation day neared in mid-2013, Republicans raised a ruckus. In a slick PR move, they started calling it the “rain tax.”

Frederick County Commissioners set their stormwater fee at a symbolic penny. Carroll County Commissioners defied the state entirely.

Other Republicans played politics, too. Laura Neuman, the new Anne Arundel executive, vetoed a stormwater fee (it was overridden by the council). She is in a tough race to win a full term.

David Craig, the Harford County executive running for governor, wants to abolish his county’s stormwater tax – though he introduced the bill and signed it into law. He also wants to wipe out the state law, a sine qua non for GOP candidates this year.

Like it or not, legislators find this issue before them in the current session.

No politician wants to endorse an unpopular tax in an election year but Democrats are in a bind. Environmentalism is a key part of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s national campaign and Democratic lawmakers won’t renege on their commitment to the bay.

The trick is making the law more palatable.

Republicans will have a field day protesting Democratic amendments, yet they know it’s all sound and fury.

Revisions could lead to a uniform stormwater fee in the 10 jurisdictions – such as a surcharge on the state property tax – or making the counties and Baltimore responsible for contributing a set amount to remediation projects but letting local officials decide how to raise the money.

In the end, a less incendiary version of the “rain tax” will pass. There’s too much at stake for O’Malley and Democratic lawmakers to back down.

Barry Rascovar, formerly a columnist for The Baltimore Sun and the Gazette Newspapers, writes regularly at www.politicalmaryland.com

 

 

Stormwater tax unpopular but necessary

By Barry Rascovar / Community Times | July 10, 2013

WHEN YOUR PROPERTY TAX bill arrived by mail last week, you may not have noticed a slight addition: an extra $21, $32 or $39 — depending on your type of residence — for “Stormwater Remediation.”

This is overdue recognition that stormwater pouring from roofs and parking pads pollutes the Chesapeake Bay, promotes flooding and soil erosion and leads to drinking water contamination.

Embarking on fixes takes money.

It’s similar to another charge, $60, on the same bill for the Bay Restoration Fund. This is better known as the “flush tax” promoted by Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

That money is spent on costly sewage treatment plant upgrades to remove nitrogen and other pollutants before the cleansed water is dumped into streams, rivers and the Chesapeake.

They are necessary expenses if we care about our environment.

None of us like to pay taxes. That’s been true since the American Revolution — remember the original Tea Party in Boston and other colonial cities?

But delivering government services and preserving our valuable natural resources can’t be done for free.

In Baltimore County, the fee to deal with stormwater runoff pays for such services as street sweeping, storm drain cleaning, maintenance and improvements, shoreline stabilization, tree planting and reforestation, among other things.

The county’s charge is $21 for a townhouse, $32 for a condo and $39 for a single-family home. This is far cheaper than Baltimore City, between $40 and $120 per residence, and generally less than Howard County, $15 to $90.

Anne Arundel County is phasing in its stormwater fee, $34 to $85, over three years and Harford County has a 10-year phase-in of its $125 fee while a task force studies other options.

The fee is mandated by state law affecting 10 jurisdictions that contribute the most to stormwater pollution of the bay.

A few counties refused to take the state mandate — required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency — seriously. They could face hefty fines or a whopping cleanup tab down the road.

Carroll County’s staunchly conservative commissioners aren’t imposing any fee and will pay for cleanup projects out of the county’s annual budget. Frederick County’s even more conservative commissioners imposed a $1 per residence fee and dared the EPA and Maryland to object.

Meanwhile, a Baltimore County Republican known for his grandstanding is leading a drive to repeal the so-called “rain tax.” Del. Pat McDonough has as much chance of succeeding as stopping the rain from falling on roofs and other impervious surfaces.

When you think about it, this fee and Ehrlich’s “flush tax” are cost-effective ways to show our support for clean water. For less than $100 a year every resident in Baltimore County contributes to a greener environment that makes it safer to swim in our rivers and bay, drink water from our taps and preserve this state’s greatest treasure, the Chesapeake.

 Barry Rascovar is a political columnist whose writings can be viewed as www.politicalmaryland.com. His email address is brascovar@hotmail.com.

Maryland’s Nullification Craze

Sheriff CorleyBy Barry Rascovar / June 6, 2013

LET’S SEE IF I’ve got this straight:

—Garrett County’s elected sheriff (see photo) says he won’t enforce Maryland’s new gun registration law because he believes it is unconstitutional. In three other rural counties, elected leaders pass resolutions proclaiming defiance and denouncing the law.

—Baltimore’s City Council unanimously approves a bill requiring city building contractors to hire locally, even though the city solicitor says this is such a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution it is “legally indefensible.”

—Frederick County’s commissioners mock the state’s stormwater remediation fee — the so-called “rain tax” — by setting a penny-a-year charge on residents, thus netting $487 for watershed improvements. It’s their way of “complying” with the law.

In each case, rebellion is afoot, a form of modern-day nullification.

No court has ever upheld the legal theory of nullification, which essentially says if you don’t like a law you simply declare it null and void — the ultimate in libertarian individualism.

Under the guise of nullification, some Maryland politicians recently took it upon themselves to interpret the law the way they want it.

Sheriff Rob Corley announced he would decide for himself when he’ll enforce the state’s new gun law. The 14-year veteran of isolated Garrett County’s police department declared the law unconstitutional — apparently based on the fine legal training he received as an undergraduate at West Virginia’s Fairmont State College.

This raises the obvious question: What laws will Corley enforce? Does he get to pick and choose? Who made him arbiter?

The good news is Corley will play no role in carrying out the new gun registration law. The Maryland State Police can handle this chore without the sheriff’s offer of non-assistance, thank you.

The bad news is that citizens of Garrett County must be wondering what kind of sheriff they elected. He’s only going to enforce some of the laws? Since he’s the sheriff he must think he can make things up as he goes along. So much for a state legislature, governor and the courts.

Meanwhile in Baltimore City the nullification farce took a different tack. Instead of obeying the U.S. Constitution, City Council President Jack Young and his equally hapless colleagues passed a local hiring ordinance that snubs the Supreme Court. So what if this law is unconstitutional? We want a local hiring mandate!

Not one member had the integrity to disagree with this farce. Even the mayor ducked: She said the bill would become law without her signature. What a portrait of courage!

To rub in the insult, Council President Young submitted a bill seeking an “independent” legal adviser for the council. He didn’t like the city Law Department’s ruling so he wants to hire his own lawyer, whose job will depend on pleasing the Council president. Nice way to squander taxpayer dollars.

Finally in Frederick County, the tea party commissioners came as close as they dared to declare the “rain tax” null and void. One dissenting commissioner compared passage of a penny-a-year fee to a child throwing “a tantrum on the floor in the middle of a department store.”

That’s par for the course for the ring-leader, Commissioner Blaine Young, who wants to be governor. It was widely viewed as a political stunt, one of many by Young. Yet if this defiance persists Frederick is still obligated to finance $112 million worth of watershed cleanup. $487 a year won’t cut it. One day the cleanup bill will come due — only it will be much more expensive by then.

So nullification lives on in Maryland, from both the far left and the far right, in the urban core and the Appalachian mountains. The land of the free and the home of the brave!

Bad Science And The ‘Rain Tax’

By Barry Rascovar / May 24, 2014

Chesapeake Bay   A STORM IS BREWING in the Chesapeake region over ways to go about, and pay for, the bay’s expensive pollution cleanup.

Conservative politicians, especially Republicans, are having a field day deriding the stormwater runoff fee mandated last year by the Maryland General Assembly. Local Baltimore-Washington governments must set fee schedules by July 1. Whoever first attached the derisive moniker “rain tax” to the stormwater levy deserves a gold star from Propaganda Addicts Anonymous.

The phrase stuck like crazy glue. It has come to symbolize — in a gross distortion — the overreach of an oppressive, heavily intrusive government in the Annapolis State House. “Now they’re even taxing the rain!” is the way those in the no-tax crowd describe the situation.

What a great slogan for spinning the story. No tax is a good tax in the eyes of these neo-Republicans, but a tax on rain? How ludicrous.

Never mind that the levy makes eminent sense. Polluted water running off non-absorbing services — like driveways, roofs, roads, and parking lots — contribute mightily to today’s pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the world’s most valuable estuaries.

Truth be told, a tax on impervious surfaces should have been put in place decades ago. It’s so obvious that this dirty runoff, chock full of nitrogen, phosphorus and other harmful chemicals, needs to be treated before reaching the bay.

That’s going to cost a pretty penny, which is compounded by Maryland’s late start. The Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup plan comes in at nearly $15 billion with the states footing a large share of the bill.

As much as opponents mock the “rain tax,” they haven’t proposed an alternative. Ignore the problem? Let the Chesapeake slowly turn into a massive “dead zone”?  Pollution remedies are not cheap. Some taxes are necessary and inevitable.

Unfortunately, too many local leaders are imposing large and sometimes onerous fees on businesses with industrial and commercial property containing lots of impervious surface. That could drive companies to other subdivisions with cheaper fees.

Things could get far worse in the ten Maryland counties implementing stormwater runoff fees. Indeed, these levies could mount in future years due to flawed scientific data affecting another aspect of the Chesapeake cleanup.

It turns out the EPA may have been dead wrong in blaming farmers, especially poultry farmers, for much of the bay’s pollution problems. A study conducted by two University of Delaware professors and a University of Maryland poultry specialist found the EPA’s computer models for determining Chesapeake pollutants decades out of date.

Bad science leads to bad results. In this case, the study showed actual phosphorous pollution from poultry manure in one Delaware county (Sussex) was less than half the EPA figure. Nitrogen pollution was 38 percent of the EPA number and total chicken manure produced turned out to be just one-fifth of the EPA figure.

These are huge differences. The EPA could be wildly overestimating the extent to which poultry farmers pollute bay waters. The professors, led by James Glancey, studied thousands of manure tests and recent shipment logs rather than relying on old EPA data from the 1980s.

Even though the potentially landmark study has not yet been peer reviewed or published, an EPA work group and state environmental officials may move quickly to modernize the bay’s computer models. Glancey’s results are hard to refute because they flow from current data.

This could mean reduced emphasis on new regulations to rein in pollutants from Delmarva farms and far greater emphasis on the obvious major contributor, suburban and urban water pollution sources.

If that, indeed, is the case, the derided “rain tax” may need to be increased consistently in future years.

After a heavy storm, visit Baltimore City’s Inner Harbor and look at what flows into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River from the Jones Falls. It’s not pretty.

Cleaning up this mess, and others like it in the Chesapeake catchment area, will take a long time and a lot more dollars from the “rain tax.”