The so-called “rain tax,” a state-mandated fee to raise money and help alleviate Chesapeake Bay pollution, drew a number of different responses from county candidates this week, depending on whom our reporter asked. But while they’re correct to say this is an issue for their campaign, even if most of them didn’t float any detailed ways to deal with it.
We’d like some better responses than the ones we got from the many candidates polled by The News-Post for their view of this state mandate. Many took to political dithering, saying, disappointingly, they weren’t familiar enough to comment or hadn’t researched the issue. That’s weak sauce right there, less than two month before the election. On the other hand, bringing a lawsuit against the state, as candidates Billy Shreve, Tony Chmelik and Kirby Delauter suggested, is just one more way to pour taxpayer money down a deep dark legal hole.
The controversy surrounding this mandate — its actual name is the Stormwater Remediation Fee — started even before its 2012 passage by the Maryland General Assembly. The legislation applies to the heaviest developed jurisdictions in Maryland. Those nine counties and Baltimore City contribute the greatest proportion of bay pollution due to stormwater runoff, the rainfall that drains from impervious surfaces, like roofs, sidewalks, driveways and parking lots, into the state’s waterways, carrying with it the nitrogen and phosphorous that is so detrimental to the bay’s ecology.
The implementation of the rain tax was itself driven by a federal mandate under the Clean Water Act, with the Environmental Protection Agency requiring each state in the watershed to develop plans to keep bay pollution to a minimum.
While we recognize the critical urgency of protecting that watershed, Maryland’s lawmakers, as usual, rolled out an all-too aggressive plan with a multi-million dollar price tag that carried the following message to affected counties: “We don’t care how you do it, just make sure you pay.”
Thus, without guidance or oversight, the affected counties all enacted wildly different fees on their residents— or not, in some cases.
Frederick County’s Board of County Commissioners balked, then rebelled, setting the fee at 1 cent, a level that has raised a grand $490 from July 2013 to mid-June. This wasn’t reasonable, nor was it realistic. But then again, neither is the $1.88 billion it could cost the county to meet those state-mandated cleanup targets by 2025. The county’s five-year stormwater permit could cost a whopping $142.3 million. That’s the equivalent of five new elementary schools, $28.5 million a year, or about $155 a year for every man and woman in the county who’s over 18.
We prefer some form of compromise that recognizes equitably the amount Frederick County plays in bay pollution while not making its taxpayers shoulder an unreasonable amount of the burden. And we’d urge the candidates to get to know the details of the rain tax, because this will be an important part of their agenda, should they be elected to the County Council. Then there won’t be any excuses for not having done their homework.