Just days after Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker promised to hold the line on new taxes and fees, a task force he created is proposing to charge homeowners $50 a year to upgrade and maintain the county's storm water system.
Ecker quickly distanced himself from the fee proposal. But he acknowledged that Howard is facing a huge tab -- as much as $5.85 million a year -- to comply with new federal regulations of the roadside system that collects and cleanses storm water on its way to the Chesapeake Bay.
Howard officials yesterday said they know of only one other Maryland county that has a separate fee to fund storm water drainage systems.
After the presentation by his task force yesterday, Ecker said he would address the issue in his budget proposal in April.
"I'm hoping anything we do would be revenue-neutral," he said, meaning that the total bill of fees and taxes would not change for homeowners.
A $50 fee would be equivalent to a 2.3 percent increase in the tax rate for a Howard County home costing $170,000, said Raymond Wacks, county budget administrator.
Raising fees or taxes to pay for the storm water system would be a politically risky move. Ecker has vowed to freeze taxes and fees -- which rules out instituting new fees, such as the $125 charge he instituted last year to pay for the rising cost of trash collection and disposal.
And the storm water system is not the kind of high-profile item -- such as schools, parks and police -- for which taxpayers typically are willing to pay more.
"This isn't something the community is up in arms about. They could care less," Ecker told the task force of eight citizens and two officials from the county's Department of Public Works. "We need to do something, but how do we tell the general public?"
The task force warned that without a massive upgrade, Howard's aging system of storm drains, ponds, channels and culverts will violate new federal regulations.
The task force recommended:
Tripling the county's annual investment on storm water projects and maintenance, from $1.8 million to $5.85 million a year.
Charging a storm water fee to all county property owners: $25 for farms, $50 for homes, $100 for commercial properties and apartment buildings worth less than $1 million, and $200 for commercial properties and apartment buildings worth more.
Creating separate plans for areas such as downtown Ellicott City with particular drainage problems.
Begin investigating illegal discharges and dumping into the storm water system.
Start an education program on storm water issues, including the proper use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer.
Howard officials said that other Maryland counties face similar problems in complying with the new federal regulations, though they could name only one other county that has a storm water fee.
Prince George's County implemented a fee in the 1940s to deal with persistent flooding problems. It evolved to include the cost of solving storm water problems.
That fee now costs the owner of a $200,000 home $270 a year, said Prince George's County officials.
Howard officials said that Takoma Park in Montgomery County recently instituted a storm water system fee as well.
John A. Morris, an Anne Arundel County spokesman, said that county is just beginning storm water studies to deal with the new federal regulations.
"I've heard for years that this will eventually be a big-ticket item," Morris said.
In Howard, one culprit of the storm water problems is the huge growth in the last several decades. Homes keep rainwater from draining straight into the ground. Lawn chemicals pollute storm water bound for the ecologically sensitive Chesapeake Bay.
But Public Works Director Jim Irvin said the biggest source of storm water is runoff from more than 1,600 miles of road lanes in Howard County.
Howard maintains 850 miles of lanes -- equal to five square miles of pavement -- and adds 10 or 15 new miles of roadway each year, Irvin said.
In addition, state highway officials said they maintain 800 miles of lanes in Howard, including state and federal highways.
All impervious surfaces block rainwater from easy absorption into the ground. The oil and other residues on roadways also contaminate storm water.
Drainage ponds and channels are supposed to prevent flooding and cause some contaminants to settle out rather than discharge into streams and rivers -- and eventually the bay.
But Steve Sharar, a Public Works Department engineer and member of the task force, said storm water management is a problem for the entire county, not just new developments.
"There was flooding, and there was pollution before any of the new development," Sharar told Ecker during the meeting. "We are all part of the problem."
Pub Date: 1/22/97