Residents of Montgomery County pay multiple taxes justified in the name of the Chesapeake Bay, including a “bag” tax, a flash tax and water quality charge. Well-intentioned residents who genuinely would like to preserve the bay would be hard-pressed, however, to explain how all that money has made a difference.
In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. In 2010, the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency established a new regulation, “Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load,”under the federal Clean Water Act. The purpose of the new regulation was to reduce pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay with a full implementation date of 2025. In May of 2012, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed into law MD House Bill (HB987), which enabled nine counties and Baltimore City to collect a “Water Quality Protection Charge.” One of the first counties to implement the “rain tax” was Montgomery County, charging property owners based on the amount of impervious area that can’t absorb stormwater. The county has had water quality charge on the property owners for many years prior to the rain tax. The “rain tax” under Section 19-35, since July 1, 2013, enables Montgomery County government to increase water quality charge that is also a phased-in tax that scheduled to increase every year. The “rain tax” had a botched rollout in Montgomery County because the estimates of the rain tax were based on the outdated satellite images.
One could be excused for thinking that if this how the county is taxing its residents, then stormwater must be the main problem in the bay. The main pollutants of the Chesapeake Bay are nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments.However, the Maryland Department of Environment mainly focused on the reduction of nitrogen. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program the main sources of nitrogen pollution are: the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River 71,000 tons; agriculture 9,975 tons; wastewater treatment plants 7,185 tons; storm water 4,740 tons; and septic 1,500 tons. The total annual load of nitrogen is 169,000 tons. According to the Maryland Public Policy Institute, Maryland officials expect it would cost $14.4 billion dollars for Maryland to reduce the pollutants in the bay. Ninety-four percent, $13.5 billion of the funding, will come from the private sector: farmers and property owners that are not responsible for the main source of pollution, the Conowingo Dam.
On May 12, Hogan (R) repealed the mandatory “rain tax”. SB863 enables local governments to decide whether or not they still want to impose the “rain tax” on their residents for storm water cleanup. It is important to stress that this legislation does not remove responsibility from local officials to prevent polluted storm water from reaching the Chesapeake Bay. But there is no single big state “rain tax” fund used to clean the bay. Every county is responsible on its own for taxing its residents.
Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Services is responsible for assessing the fees. In 2015, an average size town home with a deck and driveway for one car with total impervious area of 1012 square feet was assessed at $44 and a single family house up to $265. Older properties in the county that don’t have centralized water management protection are still subject to the “rain tax”.
The Montgomery County rain tax ran into some trouble this summer, because law states thatthe stormwater remediation fee “shall” charge an amount “based on the share of stormwater management services related to the property and provided by the county or municipality.” A local developer challenged the charge before the Board of Appeal for Montgomery County and ultimately brought a law suit (Civil No.35 398704-V) . The Circuit Court for Montgomery County opined that the Water Quality Protection Charge “is invalid per se because this charge need not reasonably relate to the stormwater management services provided by the county.” The County has appealed the decision.
Undaunted, the Montgomery County Council has reintroduced the rain tax but now as a general excise tax. Expedited Bill 45-15 is justified under theCounty's general taxing authority and would retroactively apply to the collection of storm water managementcharges levied under Section 19-35 going back to 2013.
Instead, Montgomery county government should look how they can make real positive changes into the way land development takes place. For example, the county should revise its development code to prevent severe slopes (3:1 ratio) to minimize storm water runoff in the first place. The County should also stop wasting money. For example, the county’s Environmental Protection Agency spends thousands on give-away merchandises such as bags and flower seeds. Moreover, it has generous rebate program for rain gardens and rain barrels.
The County Council will hold a public hearing on the rain tax on Nov. 17 at 1:30 p.m. Those interested in testifying at the public hearing can sign up at http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/council/phsignup.html or by calling 240-777-7803. Or residents can submit written testimony to the County Council.