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Setting the Record Straight on MD's Stormwater Fee

Schlyer-runoff-blog
Storm drain running into the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River. Photo by Krista Schyler/iLCP

Amber Athey's September 12, 2014 blog post for the Tax Foundation, ("Rain tax featured in Maryland gubernatorial campaign") seemed to be channeling—and parroting—a purely political message, rather than accurately reporting on a sometimes-controversial new set of fees for stormwater management in ten local jurisdictions in Maryland.  I'd like to set the record straight.

First, clean, safe water is part of the legacy we want to leave our children.  Polluted stormwater runoff is a major problem for local streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay; in Maryland, it delivers between a quarter and a third of our local rivers' three major Chesapeake Bay pollutants.  Science confirms that it is the only major pollution sector still on the increase, and today, the oily byproducts from cars and trucks, excess lawn fertilizers and pesticides, pet wastes, and various toxins wash off our driveways and streets and enter our streams and rivers without treatment. 

The result of unmanaged runoff is local beach and creek closures, fishing advisories, flooded streets and homes, in some cities overwhelmed sewage treatment plants and raw sewage dumping, higher costs for treating our drinking water, and a polluted Chesapeake.  But there are proven fixes available which can make our local waterways safe and clean.

Since new federal/state permits for Maryland's ten largest jurisdictions directly require them to remedy the polluted runoff problem, the legislature in 2012 decided that a locally-collected, locally-administered, segregated fee would be important to help provide the services necessary to reduce that pollution.  This is not a "state tax," but a locally-set service fee, based on the local budget necessary to clean up runoff problems, backed up to residents and businesses proportionate with their rooftops, driveways, and parking areas.  The nine counties and Baltimore City set their own rates, which is as it should be.  Baltimore City's is not "$144 per residential single family home," as they asserted, but rather ranges from $40-$120/year, depending on the amount of hardened surface; businesses pay proportionally as well.

Other doozies in Ms. Athey's piece?  How about "other Chesapeake Bay states have opted not fund the bay cleanup program?"  Pennsylvania's investment remains substantial: in 2010 alone, some $142M went to fund sewage treatment plant upgrades and other water quality measures; in 2012, the state funneled $69M to Bay watershed farmers to help put into place on-farm pollution-reduction practices; funding continues today.  Virginia (the Commonwealth only, not counting very substantial local funding) has appropriated almost a half billion dollars from 2011-2014 to upgrade sewage treatment plants, provide water quality assistance to localities, and help farmers reduce pollution.

How about this chestnut: "Marylanders are being asked to pay a tax …based on a law that was wrongly applied?"  The reference here is to a Virginia court decision that found that the volume and flow of stormwater are not themselves pollutants.  But there are serious pollutants in stormwater whose discharge, under federal law, must be regulated.  Maryland's law is intended to help local governments raise the money necessary to manage these pollutants, which are regulated under municipal federal Clean Water Act permits.

Finally, are these fees reasonable?  Again, the fees should be based on what it will cost local governments to undertake the remedies required under their permits, and then the local governments should make reasonable decisions about how to charge the residential and business users of those runoff management services, based largely on how much hardened surface their properties comprise.  One can always argue with the way this or that fee in a particular local jurisdiction was set in detail, but the principle makes sense.

No one likes paying money to the government.  But when urban and suburban flooding occurs, or when one's backyard stream or river is too polluted for the kids to play or fish in, or when the iconic, invaluable Chesapeake Bay isn't "fixed yet," the government takes the complaints.  Just as we invest in and pay for local wastewater and drinking water treatment, we need to pay to manage and treat local polluted runoff, and reduce flooding.  The best answer is a stable, locally collected fee, locally programed and spent for the services necessary.

Those are the facts.

—Lee Epstein, CBF's Director of Lands Program

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