Frederick County's 1-cent stormwater fee could end up costing tens of thousands of dollars in fines, state environmental officials recently warned.
A Maryland Department of the Environment review determined the county's fee would be "insufficient" to pay for the water cleanup efforts required by a state-enforced permit.
The fee of 1 cent per eligible property is estimated to raise $487 annually for county water programs.
"We believe that this level of funding will be insufficient to support the people, programs and projects that will be necessary for the county to meet its obligations under the Watershed Implementation Plan and the new MS4 permit that we expect to issue to your county next month," stated an Oct. 25 letter written by Robert Summers, the state's environmental secretary.
The county could get slapped with fines of up to $32,500 per day for each violation of its stormwater permit, which is in the process of being renewed, the letter continued.
However, Commissioner Paul Smith says the state is setting the county up for failure by establishing unachievable goals. A draft of the county's next stormwater permit, which regulates the county's drainage into state watersheds, would come with a price tag of $112 million over five years, according to county staff. This cost would break down to about $524 per eligible property taxpayer each year.
"That's way in excess of what is right," Smith said.
Samantha Kappalman, an MDE spokeswoman, said counties, not the state or federal government, design local water quality plans. Environmental officials are open to collaborate with local leaders on affordable ways counties can comply with their stormwater permits, she added.
"We're willing to give flexibility on how this is accomplished," she said.
Because the county's plan for complying with the permit hasn't been finalized, she said MDE can't confirm that the $112 million cost figure is accurate.
But Smith also argues that the task of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed isn't getting divided up equitably between the state's counties. The state Legislature in 2012 passed a bill requiring 10 jurisdictions, including Frederick County, to set up a stormwater fee to pay for water quality programs. Though many counties created sizable new fees, Frederick County's commissioners earlier this year decided to levy a 1-cent charge, staying in technical compliance with the law while sidestepping its intent.
Smith said it's not fair to require 10 jurisdictions to charge a new fee while letting 14 counties off the hook.
However, Kappalman noted that water quality targets will eventually appear in all stormwater permits across the state; the largest counties are simply undergoing their re-permitting process first.
Frederick County staff also say the letter from Summers fails to acknowledge that the county doesn't lean on its 1-cent fee to fund stormwater programs. This year's county budget devotes about $3.5 million from the general fund toward water quality initiatives. But the county's forthcoming stormwater permit could force annual spending of roughly $22 million each year, more than six times the current expenditure, said Shannon Moore, the county's manager of sustainability and environmental resources.
That type of increase is not realistic, Moore said.
County officials are negotiating with the state over the permit's requirements and hope to strike some kind of compromise before the document is finalized, she said.
"It's not that we're trying to shirk our efforts," Moore said. "We just want to make sure it's achievable."
Both Moore and Kappalman noted that Frederick County staff and MDE officials met in late October to discuss the permit renewal. Kappalman said MDE is working with counties across the state to ensure that stormwater fees are equitable. The letter from Summers asks county officials to show how they plan to fund the work required by their stormwater permit.
Smith said he would support taking the state to court if stormwater cleanup requirements prove unreasonably expensive.
Follow Bethany Rodgers: @BethRodgersFNP.