Revised stream fee bill likely

Leopold says he'll refine, resubmit legislation to aid harmed waterways

December 05, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,Sun reporter

Unthwarted by the defeat of his plan to raise $5.4 million a year to restore local waterways damaged by runoff, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold said yesterday that he would resubmit the legislation this month "with refinements."

Three County Council members effectively killed Leopold's proposal to charge a fee on most future development two weeks ago by amending the legislation to make it a utility fund fed by an annual charge on most property owners.

But with a 4-3 vote, the Republican-majority council rejected the altered version Monday night after more than two hours of testimony from 66 people. The vast majority - including environmentalists, watermen, developers and other business interests - voiced their support for a proposal by Councilmen Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican, and Josh Cohen and Jamie Benoit, both Democrats, to create a $10 million "all-payer" system.

Leopold, who opposed the amended proposal, said his original one stands the best chance for political success, given the county's tax-adverse climate and the fact that taxpayers are funding $11.2 million in the current budget to restore streams, dredge rivers and retrofit storm drains and culverts.

"I still believe that citizens are already paying through property and income taxes," Leopold said. "The most practicable mechanism for funding storm-water restoration is to create the disincentive for creating impervious surfaces."

Before he resubmits his bill Dec. 17, however, Leopold said he would consult with council members on what the refinements will be. He would not elaborate.

"I am open to whatever the county executive presents," Benoit said yesterday. "But I still strongly prefer the system that spreads the burden evenly over the citizens and businesses of the county."

Under Leopold's initial bill submitted in September, a charge of 25 cents per square foot of impervious surface - such as driveways, parking lots and home additions - would be imposed if a grading permit is required; for building permits, the charge would be 15 cents. No fee would be charged if a structure is built within the existing building footprint.

Critics of Leopold's Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries, or SMART, fund said it would place an undue burden on developers, who already must adhere to stringent rules to curb runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

While county officials said the average charge on a commercial development would be in the range of $16,000, business leaders estimated the typical charge would be closer to $30,000. Under Leopold's proposal, an average fee of $1,400 would be applied on new homes.

The alternative by Dillon, Cohen and Benoit would have placed a flat $30 fee on homeowners and charged owners of commercial and industrial properties on a sliding scale based on the amount of impervious surface. Supporters said the approach was more equitable, spoke to the "shared responsibility" to clean up the waterways and would raise more money than Leopold's proposal.

The Leopold administration labeled the fee as a tax and said the county lacked the manpower to administer the billing.

Many who testified Monday said that the county's waterways - an intrinsic part of the county's identify - were dying before their eyes and that the local government must do more to tackle the $1.3 billion backlog in projects to repair waterways and restore watersheds.

Watermen spoke of "dead zones" with no fish. Children and parents spoke of no longer swimming in rivers for fear of contracting severe bacterial infections. Business leaders spoke about the economic harm that could result from declining property values.

"We treat the bay, the creeks and streams as open sewers," said J. Kent McNew, an Annapolis resident and owner of 200 gas stations.

Dillon, Cohen and Benoit tried amending to bill in several ways to find an elusive fourth vote, including a proposal for homeowners to "opt out" of paying the annual fee. But the same four members who went on to vote down the bill rejected each of the amendments: Republicans Cathleen M. Vitale, Edward R. Reilly and C. Edward Middlebrooks and Democrat Daryl D. Jones.

Vitale, the newly appointed council chairwoman, told a top Leopold aide after the meeting that she could support an all-payer system with an "opt-out" clause.

Leopold said yesterday that an "opt-out" option could be problematic because some taxpayers who might not want to pay the fee could unknowingly do so. He said he would be more amenable to an "opt-in" approach.

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