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Stormwater Fee is a Boon for Prince George's

The following first appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

Photo by Krista Schyler/iLCP

Some people want us to think a stormwater fee is a lemon. They sourly call it a "rain tax." Prince George's County thinks otherwise. It is making lemonade to prove it.

Prince George's officials knew the county's stormwater system was badly in need of fixing, but they also knew how expensive the work could be. That's why most jurisdictions throughout the state have neglected the work for years. The county also recognized that a dedicated source of funding such as the stormwater fee could actually leverage considerable private funding. County leaders created a first-of-its-kind, public-private partnership with a company called Corvais Solutions. The contract was signed Nov. 20. With the partnership, the county will get management services from a large private company experienced in accomplishing public sector infrastructure projects, considerable liquidity and equity financing to do the work, and real results on the ground, efficiently.

This innovation could reduce the overall costs of upgrading the county drainage system by 40 percent, according to some estimates. You heard that right: the stormwater fee will save Prince George's taxpayers money. It should be a model throughout Maryland, yet instead of embracing the idea, some — including Gov.-elect Larry Hogan — are still fighting the fee.

Mr. Hogan, in fact, says he plans to repeal the state law requiring these local fees, claiming they're not necessary. But the folks giving Mr. Hogan advice can't have looked at local budgets lately. Nor have they much knowledge about the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Repealing these fees now would kick the legs out from under new and sometimes innovative local programs that can save taxpayers money and show great promise for cleaning up dirty waterways.

The fees came about after a 2012 state law required the 10 largest urban jurisdictions in Maryland to fund better management of polluted runoff. New state permits will hold the locales accountable. Polluted runoff is the water that washes off streets and driveways after a rain, carrying pet waste, lawn fertilizer, pesticides, and petroleum by-products directly into nearby streams, rivers and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. In many urban and suburban waterways it is the main source of water pollution. State and local authorities warn us not to swim in or even come in contact with these waters for a full 48 hours after a strong rain because of polluted runoff.

The sheer volume and speed of runoff from paved landscapes also causes flooded basements and streets.

The stormwater fees, based on a property's runoff potential (for example, rooftops and parking areas) enable local utilities to install or fix neglected drainage systems, much as sewer or electric fees are used to maintain and upgrade pipes and power lines. The polluted runoff fees are locally charged and locally managed to pay for local solutions.

In developing its solution, Prince George's County was shrewd, like a smart company that knows reasonable government regulations present more opportunity than obstacle. The county embraced the new law. And its citizens will benefit.

Seeing another silver lining, the county and Corvais are also putting together an aggressive program to train local citizens and existing small businesses in the skills necessary to fill the substantial employment needs to get the work done on the ground. These are good private-sector jobs: landscape installers and maintenance crews, construction workers, surveyors and the like. Short-term job estimates run in the thousands.

So, what's not to like? Prince George's will aggressively clean up polluted runoff that plagues local streams like Sligo or Beaverdam Creeks, Cabin or Horsepen Branch, and of course the Patuxent and Anacostia Rivers. It will charge its citizens a fair fee to accomplish this. It will get help from the private sector, which gains in the process. It will grow its employment base with good, long-lasting jobs. And it will be gaining attractive, greened-up communities along the way.

It's these sorts of benefits that have prompted 13 communities in Maryland to approve stormwater fees to date, most recently the City of Salisbury on Nov. 24. They join six locales in Pennsylvania, 23 in Virginia and more than 1,400 nation-wide.

Maybe more local governments should be thinking "lemonade" instead of "lemons" as they face the challenge of cleaning up their badly polluted waterways. And Governor-elect Hogan and other state leaders should let these new stormwater utilities begin to produce the kinds of results that are so promising.

—Lee Epstein
Director of Lands Program, Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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