By Ilana Kowarski
An attempt to delay implementation of stormwater clean-up fees that will cost Maryland property owners millions come July failed in the legislature’s final day. The delay died after it was attached to a bill exempting nonprofits and government agencies from the fees known by critics as “the rain tax.”
The amendment to delay the fees for two years was sponsored by Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, D-Howard, who said the timing was not right for an increase in government fees, even though he supported the principle that governments should invest in environmental clean-up.
The House of Delegates committee refused to bring this revision of the bill to the floor for a vote, and the end result is water clean-up fees will be charged to every commercial and residential property owner without exception.
Fees will be calculated based on square footage of buildings, pavement
These fees will be calculated based on the square footage of impervious surfaces on a property. The rationale is that roofs, driveways and parking lots create more potential for drainage problems and water contamination. Local jurisdictions are supposed to determine how much to charge per square foot, but in general, the size of the fee would depend on the size of the buildings and paved surfaces on a property.
Environmentalists say that the policy is necessary to raise money for the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay and to support the state’s efforts to meet federal environmental standards before 2017, the national deadline for compliance with the Clean Water Act.
However, critics of the fees say that they impose an undue financial burden on Marylanders at a time when the state is still struggling to recover from the recession. They argue that it is unreasonable to expect cash-strapped citizens to pay these fees when they also have to pay more gas taxes, payroll taxes, and income taxes.
‘Rain tax’ debated in Senate
Calling it a “rain tax,” Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, told his fellow senators said that it was ironic that the environmental groups who championed the fees did not want to pay them.
Pipkin said that “the irony of ironies” was that these groups were not willing to pay for better water quality even though they were the ones pushing the state towards that goal. He said that the groups’ stance was particularly galling, since much of the money raised through stormwater fees would benefit them by subsidizing conservation projects.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, defended the fees, arguing that citizens had a year of advance notice and that this was plenty of time to prepare to pay the money necessary to meet federal mandates. He said that the state had an obligation to protect its waterways and that it was not unreasonable to ask citizens to pay the costs of environmental clean-up.
Kasemeyer argued it was hard to justify adding another expense to Marylanders’ budgets immediately after enacting a gas tax hike. At a certain point, he said, the impact on people outweighs the impact on the environment, and it is unreasonable to expect people to sacrifice so much for the sake of conservation.
Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore Co., said that she objected to the fees in spite of her conviction that it is vital to protect the Chesapeake Bay, because she feared causing economic hardship.
“We need to save the planet,” she said, “but people can only do so much at one time.”
Fees will help with Chesapeake Bay cleanup
Montgomery County Democrat Sen. Richard Madaleno said that the state could not avoid paying the expense of water cleanup, since the Environmental Protection Agency has set a firm deadline for completion of the project in 2017 and will not budge. He argued that it was silly for legislators to delay the imposition of the fees required to meet that goal since citizens would ultimately have to pay the same amount of money regardless.
“When I look at this amendment, I’m reminded of the saying, ‘You can pay me now, or you can pay me later,’” Madaleno said.