The following first appeared in the Capital Gazette.
Is it possible? Has the long stormy winter of "rain tax" propaganda finally passed? Is the spring of reasonable thinking here?
I hope that is the take-away from the April 6 vote by the Anne Arundel County Council to affirm the importance of the county's stormwater fee program. The council rejected two bills that would have repealed the county stormwater fee and the program it enables.
The program, three years in the making, is overhauling the county's vast but long-neglected drainage system. Prior to this program, public dollars traditionally focused on maintaining the sewer or water systems. But when your basement or street floods, or your local creek is too polluted for safe swimming, that's often at least partly due to the poor condition of the county's stormwater system. Runoff from storms doesn't properly drain or filter into the ground. It washes pollutants straight into creeks and rivers.
That all changed in 2013 when the county started collecting a fee dedicated exclusively to improving the stormwater system. Numerous projects are now underway throughout the county as a result of this revenue stream. Had the council voted differently, all those projects would have been canceled.
County Councilmen John Grasso, Andrew Pruski, Pete Smith, and Chris Trumbauer showed real leadership. In voting to continue the county's stormwater upgrade program, these four dismissed the rain tax rhetoric for was it was: electioneering. It swept into Maryland like a nor'easter in 2013, uprooting facts and flooding newspapers with misinformation.
A March 13 statewide poll by OpinionWorks found that the rain tax disinformation campaign in Maryland was clever and effective. The poll found one out of every two Marylanders still believes he or she will be taxed when it rains. Not true, of course. A stormwater fee is similar to any other public utility fee -- like paying for garbage collection or sewer service. A stormwater fee charges a mall more than a mom-and-pop grocery because the mall parking lot produces more polluted runoff. But talk of a rain tax was brilliant propaganda.
That's why the April 6 vote was a breath of fresh air. The four councilmen who defeated the repeal didn't just stick their fingers up to gauge the prevailing political winds. Reasonable thinking won out. And there's evidence in other parts of Maryland of the same change in the political climate. The storm is passing.
On March 23, for instance, the Salisbury City Council voted unanimously to start collecting a stormwater fee. The vote was grounded in facts. The city hired the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland to explore ways Salisbury could finance an upgrade of its 105-year-old, badly neglected stormwater system. The EFC concluded a dedicated fee was the smart way to go. Salisbury joins nearly 1,500 communities nationwide that have opted for a stormwater fee to attack polluted runoff.
Also, representatives from Prince George's County spoke out forcefully in legislative hearings this spring to defend their own stormwater program from meddling. That county has estimated that by collecting a stormwater fee it actually could cut costs of upgrading its drainage system by 40 percent. Such fees typically are the preferred means of financing major capital expenses.
We just hope the leadership shown by Anne Arundel, other jurisdictions in Maryland, and across the country will inspire elected officials in places such as Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Carroll, and Frederick counties to finally face facts. Polluted runoff is the main cause of fouled, unhealthy water in many urban and suburban areas of the state. The Maryland Department of the Environment still warns us not to swim in local creeks and rivers for 48 hours after a rainstorm.
A campaign of distortions doesn't actually change the condition of our streams any more than a house of mirrors makes us skinnier. We can only do that by dedicating real dollars to put real projects in the ground.
Let's stop talking and get to work.
--Alison Prost, CBF's Maryland Executive Director