Our Say: On stormwater fees, council must settle on a compromise

Published December 06, 2007

It was disappointing that this week's County Council meeting ended without a consensus on a stormwater management fee. But the meeting was hardly wasted - the specifics may be in flux, but the general idea is still under serious discussion. For that, the council should be congratulated. A bill to levy a $30 fee on all residential properties (plus fees for businesses, calculated on a sliding scale) couldn't garner the necessary fourth vote. Councilman Cathy Vitale suggested that, at least in concept, she would support such a bill - if property owners were allowed to opt out of the fee.

Meanwhile, County Executive John Leopold is pushing an alternate plan that would levy a fee solely on new development. He argues that current residents, through county taxes, already pay about $50 a year for stormwater management.

Any fee should be applied to all property owners because everyone - not just new property owners - contributes to this environmental problem. But for now the political will to do this is not there, so it's time to move on.

The opt-out compromise is essentially dishonest. It takes advantage of people who forget to check a box or aren't alert enough to know how to avoid a fee.

Mr. Leopold's proposal has the advantage of simplicity, but we don't entirely agree with his argument. If taxes are enough to discharge the obligation of current property owners to fund stormwater projects, why aren't they enough for the new property owners who, in effect, will pay any new charge slapped on developers?

Any compromise will have to be carefully crafted to avoid imposing an unreasonable administrative burden. The plan can't be so complex that it requires additional manpower that offsets revenue gains. At least the county executive's plan - adding the fee to the building permit process - would be easy to administer.

Mr. Leopold says he is willing to change his legislation to accommodate reasonable concerns. Council members will also have to be realistic about what they can accomplish, and ultimately must unite to pass legislation that is not perfect. But it is important to us and the environmental community that something comes out of this debate.

Given the strong opposition to the all-payer plan, the council should consider a compromise that includes the county executive's plan and a short-term fee on current property owners, to apply for no more than three years. Ideally, this should be applied to every property owner, but the idea of making the fee voluntary is the one that has the momentum.

That would be better than nothing, even if it would also mean that some of the biggest contributors to this area's environmental problems would get out of making any contribution toward solving them. Enacting this would be a flawed compromise - but it would at least bring in money for stormwater projects and finally put the county on the right track.

(Revised Dec 2007)