The following first appeared in the Daily Times.
Confronting the polluted runoff problem has been a contentious issue in Salisbury, MD, for decades. Photo by Krista Schlyer/iLCP.
Given the rhetoric flying fast and furious over taxes and fees, what happened last November in the Salisbury City Council chambers may seem surprising. The council voted unanimously to approve a new fee ordinance.
But many who live and work here rallied behind this fee because they understand what outsiders may not: it makes common sense. The ordinance will make the city more fiscally responsible. It will help promote economic development. It will protect citizens' health and property.
The ordinance will allow the city to collect a fee dedicated solely to upgrading its 105-year-old system of pipes, ponds and other drainage structures. Council President Jacob Day said the city for decades has neglected maintenance and improvements to the system. As political winds shifted, funding for fixing the problem shifted to various other priorities.
The result: Parts of the downtown business district and low-laying residential areas of the city constantly flood. Also, a polluted river runs through the heart of the city.
With stormwater utility, city's leaders doing right by business and clean water. The November vote authorized the fund, and the City Council is currently considering a fee of $20 a year per residential household. The fee on a business will be calculated based on the amount of polluted runoff that comes off its property.
Those fees are less than half the national average. And while council members recognized a new fee can be burdensome, they unanimously agreed doing nothing will cost more.
Councilwoman Laura Mitchell gave one personal example of the cost of polluted water to her family: swimming lessons for her son. "I learned to swim in Shoemaker Pond. He's learned to swim in a chlorinated pool at the YMCA. And that's not free either."
Day said over the years, business owners have demanded the city do something about flooding and the cost to business. He said he is fed up with sitting at those meetings, listening sympathetically and then explaining the city lacks funds for a fix.
Councilman Spies agreed, calling the fund "an economic imperative for us."
Day said in good conscience he cannot pass on "crumbling infrastructure" — and the debt that comes with it — to future generations. He added that the proposed ordinance generated more emails and comments to his office in support than any issue since the election.
The same support showed itself during the public portion of the meeting, when only one person testified against the ordinance.
One supporter said he recently read a story in an outdoor magazine about the best towns in the country to live or visit. All the towns shared one common feature: They all are near water, and all have taken drastic steps to improve the quality of their waterfronts and their water. The speaker said he was a small business owner who wholeheartedly supported the fee, if it does what the city says.
Judith Stribling of Salisbury University said water monitoring in the Wicomico River has clearly demonstrated how pollution running off city properties, as well as upriver farms and other areas, has degraded the river.
"The Wicomico River used to be the No. 1 bass fishing river on the bay, I think. It was a major destination at any point. Water quality has declined to the point where that is not the case...I commend (the Mayor and Council) for taking this on as a service to the citizens of city of Salisbury. This will increase their property values and increase their quality of life."
A list of priority projects already drawn up will ensure the city gets the biggest bang for its buck. The ordinance spells out that the money can only be used for stormwater projects and cannot be diverted for any other purpose. Day called for flooding problems on Main Street and Germania Circle to be addressed immediately.
Salisbury will join Berlin and Oxford on the Eastern Shore, which also have adopted stormwater utilities, as well as 21 jurisdictions in Virginia, six in Pennsylvania and about 1,400 nationwide.
Despite all the political rancor in our state and country, a chorus of agreement seems to be building on one thing: An investment in clean, safe water is an investment in our communities.
—Erik Fisher, CBF's Maryland Land Use Planner