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Howard County Needs the Rain Tax

posted Oct 27, 2015, 11:44 AM by Erika Howder

I wrote this blog primarily because I would not be able to communicate all of this need justifying the Rain Tax, aka the stormwater utility fee, aka the Watershed Protection and Restoration Fee, in a 3-minute public testimony to the County Council. I have sent a link to this blog to all of Howard County’s Council Members, the County Executive and members of the public that are welcome to use any of this same information as they see fit. Much of the factual information in this blog comes from the Center for Watershed’s Protection 2014 Fact Sheet called The Value of Stormwater Utility Fees in MD . The Fact Sheet presents a cogent argument for stormwater utility fees generally as well as history and case studies.

Communities across the nation with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to manage their municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s) realized pretty quickly that there is too much work to be done to meet the requirements from the general budget (without even getting into Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) and impervious cover retrofit requirements). From 1974 to 1996, there were an estimated 300 stormwater utilities nationwide and 600 by 2007 . Takoma Park was the first Maryland municipality to establish a stormwater utility fee in 1996 with others like Montgomery County and Annapolis quickly following. It is estimated that between 1,800-2,000 stormwater utilities exist nationwide today . These communities recognize that the need to manage these public services, this incredible network of pipes, inlets, ponds and other infrastructure, as well as the needs to meet stormwater regulatory requirements requires a sustainable and adequate funding mechanism. Funding stormwater management programs through the general fund may create a system where some property owners overpay for stormwater services, while others become subsidized because the fee is based on property taxes as opposed to the actual stormwater runoff from a property (Figure 1).

RainTaxFig1

Figure 1. Distribution of stormwater management costs in Baltimore City on property taxes (left) versus an impervious-area based stormwater fee (right) Source: CWP 2014 Fact Sheet The Value of Stormwater Utility Fees in MD.

Many of the benefits of stormwater fees are relevant right here in Howard County:

  • Stormwater management practices have multiple economic and social benefits, for example, reduced noise pollution, reduced energy usage, increased recreational opportunity, and reduced flooding to name just a few. A good example of aesthetic and functional stormwater management is “The Staircase” in downtown Ellicott City. The Staircase was installed to stabilize a hillslope that had failed in one of the parking lots and features a series of step pools and waterfalls that filter polluted stormwater runoff from the upland courthouse area. It is an impressive feature that provides connection from under-utilized parking in the upper elevations of Ellicott City to the downtown itself. People proudly post selfies of themselves on the Ellicott City facebook page as a badge of pride.

RainTaxStaircase2

  • Adequately funded stormwater management programs contribute significantly to local economies and their associated businesses and industries. As stated in the CWP Fact Sheet, “Every dollar invested in stormwater management and restoration activities will directly support jobs in a variety of industries such as engineering, landscaping and construction.” Spending from households is stimulated by resulting income and employment changes due to stormwater management projects. In Howard County, the READY program (Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth, a young adult environmental workforce program, a project that I currently manage) spent $50,000 of our program income on supplies and materials at local businesses such as MD Ground Covers, Kendall Hardware and Sun Nurseries between July and September of this year. We purchase many of our plants from a place called the Providence Center, which provides job skills development opportunities to those with disabilities. In addition, because all of our employees are Howard County residents, our own paychecks go back into the local economic engine. Our program, funded in part by the stormwater utility fee, is helping to spur the local economy.
  • Many municipalities with stormwater utility fees also have incentive programs to help alleviate the burden of the fee while also addressing the need for the fee to begin with. Municipalities may have credits and rebate programs to incentivize the installation of stormwater practices by property owners. Howard County has a credit and rebate program for residential homeowners as well as the commercial sector. In addition, Howard County has a Non-Profit Partnership Program that provides significant benefit to non-profits that agree to participate in the program, in fact, their fee goes to zero by signing on to the agreement. Watershed advocates in the public and non-profit sector further market these credit and incentive programs in order to facilitate more restoration and progress towards the watershed restoration goals.
  • The stormwater utility is paying for a requirement, a permit obligation and more than one regulation. These things will require a significant investment in resources to meet. In fact, many local governments, including Howard County, will not have enough revenue even with the fee to meet the new stormwater management requirements and Chesapeake Bay restoration goals. It could also be argued that if the remediation is funded out of the general fund, taxes would be increased across the board to cover the extra expense. Once those costs go up, they will never disappear. A dedicated fee may disappear one day if the job is accomplished that it is intended to accomplish.
  • And on that vein, a dedicated fund also equates to increased accountability for the expenditure of the funds. The money can only be spent one way. We are required to meet this and that regulation, this fee helps us do that, and this is what we did with the money to help meet this and that regulation – come on, let’s go look at what we did.
  • Finally, having a dedicated source of funds with a name like “Watershed Protection & Restoration Fund” allows us the opportunity to educate the public about the very issues that created the need for the fee in the first place. If this cost is buried in bonds and property taxes, we will have a much harder time meeting the goals. Public education about the issue is a necessity for getting the job done.

County Executive Kittleman and County Councilmember Greg Fox announced on 11/24/2015 their plan to phase out the Watershed Protection and Restoration fee: http://www.howardcountymd.gov/News112415.htm. The reason stated in the press release for eliminating the fee was that it is an “unnecessary and excessive burden” to the resident and small business population. I did a small survey in Howard County to see if this was the case and the results that I obtained show that 77.1% of the sample (n=83) do not find the fee to be a burden, don’t know about the fee or haven’t noticed the fee (Figure 2). (If you would like to participate in the survey, you can do so here: http://goo.gl/forms/H1b4I4T6iy)  And for those that do find the fee to be burden, there is a hardship credit to provide assistance for those that qualify: http://www.howardcountymd.gov/departments.aspx?ID=1465

If the County Councilmembers that are reading this blog find dispute with this survey or feel that this survey is biased in some manner, I would encourage him/her to otherwise gather some factual information from his/her constituents to indicate otherwise and please share this information with the public as justification for phasing out the fee. That the fee is a burden seems like a pretty nebulous and non-factual statement to justify eliminating a source of revenue that has all of the benefits identified above.

After all, we are in a County with an AVERAGE income of $108,844 – the third-highest median household income of any U.S. county as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2012. Many people report moving to Howard County “for the schools.” Clearly this is a population that cares about the future. My own kids started learning about the Chesapeake Bay in 6th grade in Howard County – this is embedded into the school curriculum. We care about our children in Howard County, we care about their futures, we care about the Bay, we care about our local natural resources. Let’s put our money where our mouths are.

Figure 2. Survey of Howard County residents regarding whether the stormwater utility is a financial “burden” for  them.