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(Flickr / Jim Champion / “Raindrops” / CC BY-SA 2.0 / cropped and resized)

Baltimore County Council looks to eliminate ‘rain tax’

Baltimore County could be the first jurisdiction to attempt to eliminate its stormwater management fee since passage of state legislation that altered the program that became a statewide campaign issue and was dubbed “the rain tax.”

The bill, introduced Monday night in Towson and sponsored by all seven council members, would fully phase out the fee for commercial, nonprofit and residential properties over the next two years.

“2017 would be the last time it appears on a tax bill,” said Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Democrat and council chairwoman.

The move comes almost 10 months after the council voted to approve a plan proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to reduce the fees by one-third or about $9 million annually. A competing proposal to eliminate the fees was withdrawn because it lacked the votes to override an expected veto from Kamenetz.

Bevins said the members discussed the topic over the months since.

“It was just time,” Bevins said. “We just weren’t ready for it and didn’t know what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.”

Bevins vowed an override should Kamenetz veto the bill next month.

The bill as introduced was praised by the Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, who said the bipartisan effort was forcing Kamenetz’s hand on the issue.

“We are happy to see that the Baltimore County Council has decided to work with the governor to repeal the rain tax in their county,” Cluster said in a statement. “We look forward to a day when every jurisdiction in Maryland repeals this crazy tax.”

Under the bill, the county would reduce the fees by about one-third in July of 2016. Residents who now are paying $26 annually would pay $13 annually. The final reduction would come after county residents pay their property tax bills in 2017.

The fee, dubbed the “rain tax” in the 2014 election, became a hot button issue for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan during his campaign.

Hogan vowed to repeal the tax and introduced a bill earlier this year.

The 2012 law applies to the state’s 10 most populous jurisdictions, but each pays for the mandated sediment and nutrient mitigation projects differently.

Carroll County charges nothing and instead absorbs the costs within its own budget. Frederick County charges 1 cent. Harford County initially charged a fee and then in January voted to eliminate it.

Bevins said the county has the ability to absorb the costs.

“We have pots of money,” Bevins said.

Hogan’s bill, which sought to eliminate the fee, was killed in committee. Instead, the General Assembly passed legislation that continues to mandate the mitigation projects and allows counties to determine how they will be paid for, as was previously allowed. The bill added requirements on the counties to show that the projects were meeting the federal mandates. The bill also prohibits counties from eliminating any stormwater management fees in place without the approval of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Hogan signed the bill into law and declared it the end of stormwater management fees, but some county governments opposed the bill while environmental groups praised it for making the law stronger.

Bevins said bill in Annapolis had little to do with the council introducing the bill Monday night. Instead, she said, it was talking to people while campaigning last year.

“Everywhere I go in my district it just never stops,” Bevins said, adding that small-business owners expressed the biggest concerns.

“It wasn’t the individual people who had something to say,” Bevins said. “It was the small-business owners who wanted to have the conversations with me and really made it personal, telling me stories of how it affected them.”

Bevins said she is confident that the county will be able to secure state approval.

“As long as we’re getting the projects done by 2025, I don’t think the state cares how we pay for it,” Bevins said.