Runoff fund dies in council

Leaders promise to resurrect ideas, debate a new plan soon

By ERIN COX, Staff Writer
The Capital, Published December 04, 2007

A bill to give a new stream of tax dollars to ravaged creeks and rivers failed in the County Council last night. But politicians inundated with resident concerns for the county's waterways have promised to begin drafting a new plan - one that taxes all residents and businesses each year, but makes the tax optional for homeowners.

"The proper bill with an opt-out provision is how you'd get my vote," said Councilman Cathy Vitale, a Severna Park Republican who said she would start drafting a new bill.

What politicians call the "opt-out provision" means a tax would be levied on every homeowner, but residents who do not want to pay it could fill out a form and have it waived.

The council defeated by a vote of 4-3 a plan to charge every homeowner $30 a year and businesses on a sliding scale in order to raise $11 million annually to fix problems related to stormwater.

Improperly controlled rainwater can rush into creeks and streams, carrying sediments and pollutants that smother wildlife, encourage bacteria and erode shorelines.

Central to the ongoing debate over how to fix a $1.3 billion backlog of damaged streams and rivers was how to charge residents - whether to tax new development or whether to charge every resident and business in the county to combat the runoff problems.

"Don't let the failure of the bill set you back," Councilman Ron Dillon, one of three councilmen to promote the across-the-board fee defeated last night, said to residents who supported his plan. "Keep the pressure on your representatives. This is something this council and this county needs to address."

The idea to create an opt-out provision was born from of an effort to strike a compromise, said Councilman Josh Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat who supported the across-the-board fee with Mr. Dillon and Democrat Councilman Jamie Benoit.

Mr. Cohen said the opt-out provision he and the other councilmen suggested should have dissolved the friction between voting for the environment or voting to impose a tax on residents "because no one could view it as a mandatory fee for residents anymore."

He was disappointed it did not pass.

"Before the opt-out provision there were these competing issues: it was about the environment or taxes," Mr. Cohen said. "But with the opt-out provision, it was not about the environment versus taxes. It was about the environment or nothing."

In dismissing the bill that had evolved since September, Ms. Vitale said she would support "the proper bill" that also included a way for the county to opt-out.

County Executive John R. Leopold said he plans to submit a new SMART Fund bill within two weeks that will have "refinements," but still would be based on taxing new development that creates impervious surface. He said it presents "the most practicable and equitable mechanisms to raise funds for stormwater management."

At the hearing, Mr. Leopold's staff gave a litany of reasons why the across-the-board fee bill would cause administrative headaches. The technology to determine a business' impervious surface is sophisticated enough for planning purposes, but lacks the precision to generate fair tax bills, they said.

"We can't even begin to estimate the time and the cost required to implement it," said Alan Friedman, Mr. Leopold's director of government relations.

As for compromise, Mr. Friedman said the staff stands ready to "work within the county executive's policy and parameters," including a refusal to tax all residents and a desire to connect the amount of impervious surface someone owns with a fee to offset the damage it creates on the environment.

In defending what's being called the "opt-out" program, Mr. Dillon said "This is simply: if you don't want to pay it, you don't. If you care about the bay, you pay it. If you don't, you pass."

Some of the more than 65 residents who testified about the bill accused the council of making the issue "a political football" and not committing to finding a compromise. A handful urged the council to pass what they described as an imperfect bill so that something could get started.

In all, supporters who testified for the across-the-board tax outnumbered opponents 5 to 1.

Some who opposed the across-the-board tax, such as Tom Hampton of Severna Park and Paul Higgins of Pasadena, said they'd be willing to pay the tax on a voluntary basis.

Councilman Ed Reilly, who supports funding stream restoration with taxes in proportion to impervious surface, did not say whether he supported an opt-out provision.

Mr. Reilly, R-Crofton, said he supports funding stormwater problems, but did not support a fee on every resident.

Margaret Palmer, laboratory director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, lives in Davidsonville and told the council that "restoration done properly can fix problems."

Much of the hearing centered on testimony on how the bay's declining health has destroyed residents' quality of life.

An educator with the public school system said the bay's deterioration has reshaped his outdoor education programs. Although Stephen Barry still takes students from schools around the county on trips to degraded streams, the bay's dead zones and dying yellow perch halted a perch program. The bay grasses students plant each year continue to die, he said. And where students used to wade into the waters to plant grasses, they now stand on the shoreline and plant them with a 6-foot rod "because we feel it's not safe for the students to go into the water in Anne Arundel County.

Support also came from teenagers who saw the bay of their childhoods degraded so they could no longer swim. It came from residents with tales of infections borne by swimming in the bay, the Sierra Club, the owner of 200 of the county's gas stations, developers, home builders and the county's chapter of the League of Women Voters.

The personal stories of health woes included former councilman Barbara Samorajczyk who slipped on a rock, cut her leg and later got a recurring bacteria infection that took four months of treatment to heal.

It included Gary Antonides, a grandfather from Edgewater who said he gave his son and daughter scientific literature when they came on vacation "to convince them not to let their kids swim in the South River."

Edgewoood resident Westbrook Murphy said that by his own measurements, bacteria levels of water in front of his house are two times higher than safe levels. He said that after a rain, the bacteria levels are 3,000 times higher.

"That's turning the water in front of my front door into a toxic cesspool."

Opponents included Spear Lancaster of the county's Taxpayers' Association, and Debbie Belcher from the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee. Deale resident Clara Dickerson told the council that she supported funneling tax dollars to fix stormwater pollution, but that the county should sell land or find another way to come up with the money.

"I'm just sick and tired of one tax after another," Ms. Dickerson said. "I own a lot of property. I know if I had a problem, I'd sell a property I have to fix a problem I have."

Resident David Daughters argued that his Gambrills home does not contribute to the problem, and even if it did, the county approved of the way it was built and should assume responsibility for any environmental problems that result.

"If anything goes wrong, it's their fault, not mine," Mr. Daughters said.

(Revised Dec 2007)