Failure of bill brings fears

Infighting may kill waterways funding chances, critics say

December 09, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,Sun reporter

The collapse of a bill that would have raised at least $10 million a year for storm-water damage repairs has angered environmental and business leaders, who fear that political infighting and posturing might kill any chance for new funding to restore Anne Arundel County's waterways.

This unlikely coalition turned out in force last week to testify for a new annual fee on most property owners, but were unable to get the support of two Republican council members who had sought to cultivate pro-environment images. Without the needed fourth vote from Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale or Councilman Edward R. Reilly, the bill failed.

Activists from the two camps also say they are disillusioned that County Executive John R. Leopold, who opposed the measure, would push a bill the council scrapped last month. They said that bill would do less to combat the runoff problem than a "all-payer" utility fund.

"For the first time in many years, there's a collective desire to address the storm-water restoration management issue, and everyone is willing to put the resources necessary to have it go forward," said Bob Burdon, chief executive of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, which supports the utility fund. "Why the county executive will not step in and take a leadership role and address this need ... is very perplexing."

Leopold said Friday that there is no political will for the utility fund -- which opponents labeled a tax -- and that his proposal to place a fee on most future development is the most viable approach to eliminate a backlog of runoff projects that exceeds $1 billion. He said he is taking a leadership role by keeping this issue on the public agenda.

"There is not additional support for an all-payer property tax approach," Leopold said.

Reilly, a Crofton Republican who has taken up the mantle of leadership on the runoff issue, first opposed Leopold's bill to raise $5.4 million annually and initially said a proposal -- by Councilmen Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican, Josh Cohen and Jamie Benoit, both Democrats -- to charge residents a flat fee was "more tolerable."

Several environmentalists said that Reilly privately gave them his word in 2005 that he would support a utility fund. Some said they were "disappointed" by his "no" vote, and others called his policy changes "a mystery."

"He is not a credible person to me anymore," said John Flood, a founding member of the South River Federation, who said Reilly made a commitment to him. "I can't believe in him anymore. He is pretending not to remember."

Reilly said he did not make such a commitment.

Although he has expressed reservations about Leopold's bill, Reilly said he backs it. Given the "terrible fiscal pressure" the county is facing, he said, carving out more money in the existing budget is unlikely.

"Any fee, any charge, can be considered a tax in principle," Reilly said. "I think we need to do something. Leopold's bill is a first step."

Vitale, who could not be reached for comment Friday, has opposed the utility fund because of the prospect that the $30 fee on homeowners could be increased. She pledged her support after her vote to allow homeowners to "opt out" of paying the fee.

Supporters of the storm-water utility fund bill said she had been receptive to their arguments. Vitale is a member of the state Critical Area Commission, which monitors the impact of building on the bay.

"I thought Cathy Vitale might have been the fourth vote," Burdon said. "Cathy has demonstrated in the many years she has been on the council that she can be pragmatic when she's dealing with issues of this importance, rather than [be] partisan or ideological. That was not the case."

Under Leopold's initial bill, 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 say the bill would force builders to shoulder the financial burden.

Under Leopold's proposal, an average fee of $1,400 would be applied on new homes and $16,000 on new commercial projects.

The utility fund floated by Dillon, Cohen and Benoit would have charged business on a sliding scale. Most small businesses would have paid less than $200 a year, proponents said.

Critics of a utility fund argue that residents -- who are facing more than $1 billion in higher state taxes, gasoline prices hovering around $3 a gallon and rising health care costs -- cannot afford to pay $30 more a year to fund stream-restoration projects.

Supporters countered that most property owners would have to sacrifice only a couple of lattes a month to pay their share. Many of the 56 people who testified in favor of the utility fund described how runoff supercharged with hazardous bacteria and pollutants is making Anne Arundel's waterways uninhabitable to humans and fish.

As supporters of the utility fund and Leopold's bill continue to meet, some environmentalists said that creating a funding source is imperative -- no matter what form.

Leopold said his resubmitted legislation will include an "opt-in" provision. One possible solution could incorporate elements from both plans and combine them.

"The county executive introduced a bill that is something that I would not have expected under the previous administration," said Erik Michelsen, head of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development. "It's a good step in the right direction. The council bill represents a good bill. I could live with either."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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