Water fees flooding taxpayers wallets -- Gazette.Net


Since 2002, Robert Leffler has been paying an annual stormwater management fee — which some dub a “rain tax” — to Montgomery County attached to his property tax bill. The fee has risen from $12.75 a decade ago to $92.60 last year.

In addition, he said he has paid homeowners association dues and other fees to maintain ponds designed to mitigate storm water in the Kings Valley community in Damascus.

“In effect, I’m being double taxed,” Leffler said. “Why am I being charged a stormwater management fee when I’m already paying to address the problem?”

The situation is the same in the newer communities that have ponds and other measures addressing stormwater runoff throughout Montgomery, where the County Council recently passed a new storm water program that extends the fee to most businesses. About 90 percent of homeowners will see a reduction in the fee as a result of the new program, said Steven Shofar, Montgomery’s watershed management division chief.

The fee, fueled by a state law passed last year in response to an order by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, is being phased in during the next three years in the county. Montgomery is one of 10 jurisdictions in Maryland required to address the issue by July 1.

Jurisdictions in other states, including Charlottesville, Va., also have recently passed storm water management fees.

Those living in communities with ponds and other stormwater management efforts such as Kings Valley and the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, which have a series of ponds with names such as Inspiration Lake that mitigate stormwater, will be eligible for credits, Shofar said, which should further reduce the fee for some.

“But that depends on how effective the treatment is,” Shofar said. “And in many cases, the credit will go to the homeowners association if they are maintaining [the pond].” The county maintains some ponds itself in housing communities, he said.

County officials have considered allowing a credit for mitigation efforts in the past but only acted after the state law was passed, Shofar said.

Some businesses already pay thousands a year in fee

While most homeowners will see some relief on the charge, most businesses will experience a new fee. And it could be quite hefty for some such as auto dealers and shopping center owners who have large parking lots, or impervious space where rainwater does not penetrate into the ground.

Numerous developers, auto dealers with large parking lots and others have expressed concerns over how much the fee will be to leaders of groups such as the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties and Maryland Automobile Dealers Association.

“It’s a big issue for those of us who have businesses with a lot of impervious surface,” said Marisa Shockley, vice president of Shockley Honda in Frederick. “That’s not just auto dealers but Walmart and grocery stores.”

The city of Frederick has a stormwater management charge that both residents and businesses pay. Frederick County Commissioners are in the process of deciding what to charge residents and businesses, which include Shockley Honda, that are outside the city limits.

In Montgomery County, businesses within the city limits of Rockville have paid an ever-increasing stormwater management fee to the city since 2009, along with residents.

For example, Lois Rockville LLC, the property owner where the Giant Food store at 625 Hungerford sits, paid $5,602 for that fee in 2012, up from $2,840 in 2009, according to Montgomery County property tax records. In 2012, Lois also paid about $77,700 in county property taxes, $25,000 in city of Rockville taxes, $27,600 for a solid waste charge and $9,600 in state taxes.

Giant Food spokesman Jamie Miller could not be reached for comment this week.

Meanwhile, Rockville residents have seen their storm water fee rise from $40 in 2009 to about $79 last year.

The city of Gaithersburg has had an agreement with the county to collect its stormwater charge since 2003 only on residential properties, city Finance Director Harold Belton said. That agreement was terminated in February, but the city has since decided to have the county’s existing program apply within its boundaries again, he said.

Besides the businesses in Rockville, companies in Montgomery such as restaurants that have parking lots that drain into a neighborhood storm water pond that primarily serve residents have also paid the fee for the last decade.

Montgomery’s fiscal 2013 rate is $92.60 per equivalent residential unit, which is roughly 2,400 square feet of impervious surface. Grants will be available to homeowners associations with private roads that are open to the public, while nonprofits’ charges will be capped through a tiered system.

Joan Fidler, president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League, said she has heard from some who weren’t aware they have been paying a stormwater management fee for a decade through their property tax bills. She said she wanted to check into the issue more before commenting.

One problem with taxing commercial property owners is that the businesses will likely pass the fees on to customers, Leffler said. “So we will continue to pay even more,” he said.