Montgomery County businesses and nonprofits will have to pay as much as $14,000 per year to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay starting July 1, but the county and state won't have to pay the fee on their government buildings, which account for millions of square feet.
The Water Quality Protection Charge -- decried as a "rain tax" by opponents -- will be charged to property owners based on how much of their property consists of impervious materials like concrete or pavement that rain can't pass through. Residential property owners have paid it since the state General Assembly passed a law in 2012 to put Maryland in compliance with an Environmental Protection Agency mandate. Montgomery County voted last week to extend the fee to nonresidential properties -- except for government buildings.
"There's a historical exemption for state bodies and local jurisdictions because of separation of powers," said Samantha Kappalman, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
"It's been long-running that there's a state exemption from local fees."
Statewide, there is about 66.7 million square feet of impervious property owned by the state and the University System of Maryland that doesn't have to pay the stormwater fee, according to a spokesman for the Department of General Services. The 2012 law let local governments set their own fees instead of imposing a uniform statewide fee. The fee is meant to fund facilities to clean pollution out of stormwater -- water that flows back through residents' faucets or into the unhealthy Chesapeake Bay. The bill didn't make an exemption for the federal government.
Kappalman said some state agencies were still "leading by example" and managing their own stormwater instead of leaving it to counties.
For example, Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Henson said the agency has its own stormwater treatment facilities and pays local fees -- such as for the Maryland State Highway Administration's headquarters in Baltimore -- in jurisdictions where it doesn't.
However, that's not enough for anti-tax activists who say the exemption is inherently unfair to taxpayers.
"This unfunded mandate is proving how dysfunctional government is, and placing all the responsibility on property owners isn't fair," said Americans for Prosperity-Maryland Grassroots Director Nick Loffer. "It's time for government to respect taxpayers by thinking these things out."
In Montgomery County, there is a total of about 266 million square feet of impervious property, not including county-owned buildings. A county spokeswoman said the number of square feet owned by the county hadn't been calculated because the county doesn't have to pay the fee.