From Harford County government:
By Jim Richardson
While it’s not a “rain tax,” it’s a fee nonetheless. It’s an unbudgeted, unexpected chunk of change that may throw many local business owners for a financial loop. It will also have a strong impact on the region’s economic development.
“It” is the Storm Water Management Fee that will be assessed on certain residents and businesses throughout Harford County as a way to finance natural resource conservation and water quality improvement programs. Harford County is included in the 10-county jurisdiction affected by the State Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, which seeks to lower the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment discharges in our waters. The State of Maryland has given general guidelines for reduction under this program, including a Storm Water Remediation Fee to be paid by landowners within the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) area. Each county can implement its own structure and operational details to generate funds, and each county has approached it differently. Two counties have refused to participate, with one of them making its point by enacting a one-cent tax to all eligible properties.
Our local program allows options for the private sector, albeit difficult ones. Harford County government adopted the current program which provides for 10 percent of the proposed storm water fee to be collected this year. After the first year’s 10 percent discounted fee, approved by the County Council, residential and agricultural properties may be charged $125 yearly and businesses may be assessed $7 per 500 square feet of impervious surface yearly. Non-profit organizations fall under other assessment criteria. The legislation does provide for a 100 percent credit for properties that meet the storm water quality guidelines; however, the rules and procedures to implement this program have not been fully developed. The County Council will establish work groups along with County government agencies to further develop this program, and to address any off site mitigation that would possibly be an advantage to businesses with a large impervious footprint. It leaves much to be debated over the next several months.
Major distribution centers, which make up a significant portion of our economy, may be heavily impacted due to their size. A 500,000 square-foot facility and a parking area of 300,000 square feet may be taxed $11,200 per year, totaling nearly $35,000. Retail properties, also a mainstay of the County, have the ability to spread the tax amongst tenants, but it increases lease payments for often-financially strapped retailers. They, in turn, will pass costs on to the consumer. In addition, the geographic inconsistency of the tax requirement is a bitter pill for businesses outside the applicable area. Initially, fees do not apply to properties – residential or commercial — within the city or town limits of Aberdeen, Bel Air or Havre de Grace, because they are not subject to the County’s MS4 permit. It is anticipated that these jurisdictions, along with other counties in the state will be subject to this fee in the future, but the time frame is unclear.
With the obvious benefit of locating a business within the town limits, efforts to attract businesses to places like the Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor and new retail complexes in Abingdon will now need to become more aggressive. Creative support will need to be offered to offset the financial implications of this program in areas that are crucial to the County’s success.
To insure the County continues to maintain momentum in attracting businesses to our area, the Office of Economic Development is being proactive in searching for partnerships with various companies that will lessen the financial burden for businesses. As a County, we cannot continue to thrive if we do not provide alternatives. It’s no secret that companies evaluate the cost of doing business before deciding where to locate. We want to give them the positive reasons to locate in Harford County. Among them are the efforts on everyone’s part – businesses, lawmakers and residents – to do the right thing for the environment.
Investment in facilities and landscaping to meet the water quality goals is a good first step. Partnering with the agricultural community and the building community to implement innovative, cost-effective programs with a high return on water quality improvement is another avenue worth exploration. Searching for ways to make the program itself consistent and meaningful – both for businesses and the environment — should be a top priority. Engaging in productive discussions that will result in new ways to unburden local businesses is imperative. We need to support our business community so that they can meet the criteria of this program cost-effectively while they continue to do business profitably in our county.