Who’ll stop the “Rain Tax”
Exemption rules for stormwater fees—derided by critics as a “rain tax”—are strange at best
Published: July 24, 2013
Starting this fall, Baltimore residents are going to have to pay up to $120 per year extra on their water bills to cover new pollution-control strategies for the Chesapeake Bay.
The federally mandated remediation of nutrient-and-poison-laden runoff covers the District of Columbia and six states which drain into the bay. Maryland is the only one so far to have instituted a new “fee”—actually a tax—to cover the estimated $7.7 billion cost over 10 years. Nine of the 10 counties required to charge the fee have already made the rules implementing it, and in every case it’s been controversial. Businesses hit with a tax on every square foot of parking lot or roof are complaining hardest. Some will owe tens of thousands a year in new fees to the government.
Baltimore City passed its bill on June 24. The Department of Public Works published the rules associated with the bill on Friday, July 12 at 7:15 p.m. The rules can be seen at cleanwaterbaltimore.org. The public has till Aug. 12 to comment on the rules before they take effect.
The residential property tax is divided into three “tiers” according to the size of the property. Tier 1—smaller rowhouses with less than 824 square feet of “impervious surface”—will be charged $40 per year. Tier 2 works out to $60 per year, and the largest homes on Tier 3—those with more than 1,500 square feet of impervious surface on the property—will be charged $120. The fees were scaled back slightly from the original proposal.
Despite concerns that the city would forget the state-mandated “hardship exemption,” there is one. It runs several pages and will require people who think they’re eligible—basically people whose income is below the federal poverty threshold—to fill out forms and prove they are poor and live in the city.
Some of the details in the rules suggest money is tight for the city itself, which needs to raise about $20 million per year in order to comply with the mandate.
For example, one way homeowners can get a break is by participating in stream cleanups or other city-sanctioned events. Such volunteer efforts will now be compensated with a break on your water bill—though not much: The maximum credit per year is $10 for eight hours participation, up to $30 per year.
That works out to $1.25 an hour.
“Think of how many elderly, handicapped, etc. homeowners will be able to pick up tires along a streambed for hours on end,” says Joan Floyd, a Remington neighborhood activist who has followed the rain tax. Her organization proposed an alternative “Block Maintenance Credit” for people who pledged to keep yards, streets, and alleys clean on their block for a year. The proposal went nowhere, she says.
“We made the participation credits transferable so that people could help their neighbors,” DPW spokesperson Jeffrey Raymond says in an email to City Paper. “It may also be worth mentioning that those people who receive the senior discount on their water/sewer bill have the discount automatically (no additional paperwork) applied to their stormwater fee.
“The credit for event participation is meant to reflect the value of the remediation project relative to the fee,” Raymond says. “It is not meant to reflect the value of a volunteer’s labor.”
Rain gardens, tree plantings, and other runoff-reducing landscaping practices will be eligible for modest credit as well, according to the published rules. But some of the requirements may surprise even young environmentalist-types. Consider the “rainwater harvesting” rule, which applies to rain barrels that eco-conscious folks attach to the downspouts of their homes. Typically these are 40- or 55-gallon barrels; the water is held there for use in the garden. Now the rule: “A minimum 400 gallons of storage is required to be eligible for this credit. The customer must demonstrate that the water will be used either as irrigation or plumbing service.”
That’s four to eight times what a homeowner would typically use. The credit is $24 per year.
DPW created the rules in cooperation with a task force of “stakeholders,” Raymond says. “The task force that considered the credits decided that rain harvesting is better than rain barrels because it has a more significant impact on preventing runoff. The size of a rain harvesting system will likely mean that houses in the Tier 3 group will be big enough for this credit, though smaller houses likely will not. Houses in Tier 1 and 2 will still be able to utilize rain gardens or other credits.”
A rain garden is sort of a homemade marsh—a “depressed area” in the yard planted with vegetation. The regulation: “The rain garden must have a minimum size of 100 square feet and a minimum drainage area of 1,000 square feet to be eligible for this credit.” That credit is $16 per year.
If you own a vacant lot, you can get 45 percent off your bill—for that lot. City Paper asked Raymond why a vacant lot—with no buildings or driveways—is not exempt, given that the law is meant to mitigate the effects of roofs and pavement. “Vacant lots still produce runoff,” he said. “A 45 percent discount is significant.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.