The Frederick County stormwater fee has landed like a speck on local property tax bills in the past couple of years.
But clean water advocates and tax-averse political candidates alike say local residents should turn attention to the penny-sized fee as they prepare to enter the voting booth in November.
Known by its critics as the "rain tax," the fee is mandated by the state but is designed and sized by local officials. While some Maryland jurisdictions have created substantial levies, in some cases more than $100 per home, Frederick County leaders have opted to charge just 1 cent per property, enough to generate a meager $490 from July 2013 through mid-June. State officials have already warned that the 1-cent fee will fall far short of paying for necessary projects to control storm water runoff and prevent erosion and flooding.
Some candidates for local office say future county leaders should reexamine the fee for a possible increases while working with the state to moderate unfunded mandates. Others argue the state is asking local residents to suffer for pollution created elsewhere and vowed to take Maryland officials to court rather than increase the fee.
"The rain tax is completely absurd," said Blaine Young, a Republican candidate for county executive. "I don't think the residents of Frederick County should be having to foot the bill for what others have done, especially when it's based on faulty studies and science. With me, it's non-negotiable."
Republican council candidates Billy Shreve, Kirby Delauter and Tony Chmelik also said they would launch a legal challenge if the state tries to force the county to hike its stormwater fee.
Young said it's critical for voters to know where candidates stand on the fee and on strategies for dealing with state water quality mandates.
Amanda John, policy manager with the Potomac Conservancy, a nonprofit that focuses on water quality, agreed that the issue is important for Frederick County voters, though she doesn't share Young's perspective on it.
A study released last year showed that the majority of the county's watershed areas are suffering from poor biological health and bank erosion, and the Monocacy River experiences frequent flooding, she said. These problems will only intensify if the county fails to step up to the plate, she added.
"Storm water runoff is a local problem with local consequences," John said.
The sitting board of county commissioners, including Young, Shreve and Delauter, enacted the current penny-sized fee last year. Under the county's new form of government, which will take effect in December, a seven-member council will exercise control over the fee structure. The county executive could veto an increase and decide how to spend the money that is collected, according to county attorney John Mathias.
The stormwater fee requirement fits into broader efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 established a strict "pollution diet" for six states that drain into the Bay, and in seeking to comply, Maryland has passed cleanup goals along to its counties.
Jan Gardner, the Democratic contender for county executive, says rather than battling the state, it is in the county's interests to preserve open lines of communication. She also argues the conversation shouldn't be about the fee itself but should center on the costs attached to cleanup targets.
County staff have estimated that the local cost to meet state watershed goals could total $1.88 billion by 2025. The county's five-year storm water permit, which is now being renewed through the state, could come with a price tag of $142.3 million, said Shannon Moore, who manages the county's office of sustainability and environmental resources. The permit is in its final phase of public review before the state issues the final version, Moore said.
Whether the county finds this money through the stormwater fee or in its general fund, taxpayers are ultimately footing the bill, Gardner said. She noted that the current cost estimate for the permit breaks down to more than $28 million annually, more than the county budgets for its public works division.
Gardner said she's not ready to suggest where the county might find money to deal with the additional cost burden. First, elected leaders should collaborate with state officials to make the permit less expensive, she said.
"We're still in an uncertain economy, and it's not a time to be hitting the taxpayers up. We need to try to advocate for ways to meet these goals that are more affordable," Gardner said.
For one thing, county leaders should reverse a decision by sitting commissioners allowing homes to be built closer to streams, she argued. Weakening the stream buffer requirement is a step in the wrong direction when the county is trying to control stormwater, she said.
Allowing the county to earn credit by supporting farm practices that reduce runoff could also help, Gardner said. A report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission found that such an agricultural trading program could reduce compliance costs by up to 90 percent, Moore said.
Gardner, Young and a number of council candidates also question the accuracy of the scientific assumptions that underpin cleanup targets. Linda Norris, a Democratic candidate for a council at-large seat, says she's open to adjusting the fee so long as the county isn't required to pay more than its share.
"I don't mind asking citizens to pay for a community need, but I want to make sure I'm asking for the right amount," she said.
Shreve and others say Maryland should stop pushing cleanup programs until other states shoulder some of the burden. A large amount of the pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay flows down from Pennsylvania, and Maryland's efforts will be futile unless its neighbors do their part, Shreve said.
Frederick County is currently involved in a partnership with nine other Maryland counties that are concerned about the state's approach to stormwater cleanup. The members of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition are pooling money to pay for legal advice and could collaborate on a court challenge against the state, Young said.
To help with its ongoing stormwater permit renewal process, the county has also hired lawyers from AquaLaw, a firm known for winning a case filed by the state of Virginia in response to EPA water quality requirements, Young added.
Follow Bethany Rodgers on Twitter: @BethRodgersFNP.