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Stormy Monday: The new “Rain Tax” rules are out; read ‘em and weep

July 15, 2013

2586953834_206e246f98_nThe Rain Tax rules are out, and some of them are strange.

Starting this fall, Baltimore homeowners and/or renters (whoever pays the water bill) are going to have to pay up to $120 per year extra on their water bills to cover new pollution control strategies for the Chesapeake Bay. The federally-mandated remediation of nutrient-and-poison-laden runoff covers five states and the District of Columbia, which drain into the bay. Maryland is the only one so far to have instituted a new “fee”—actually a tax—to cover the estimated $7.7 billion cost.  Nine of the 10 counties required to charge the fee have already made the rules implementing it, and in every case it’s been controversial. Businesses hit with a tax on every square foot of parking lot or roof are complaining loudest.

Baltimore City passed its bill on June 24. DPW published the rules associated with the bill on Friday, July 12 at 7:15 pm. City Paper got a press release about it; the rules are here.  The public has 30 days to comment on the rules, they are expected to go into effect in September.

Despite concerns that the city would forget to allow the state-mandated “hardship exemption,” there is one. It runs several pages and will require people with no money to fill out forms and prove they are poor and live in the city. Looks like a nice addition to social workers’ short list of tasks.

Some of the details in the rules suggest money is tight for the city itself.

For example, one way home owners can get a break is by participating in stream clean-ups or other city-sanctioned events. Such volunteer efforts will now be compensated with a break on your water bill—though not much: “The maximum credit per year is $10 for 8 hours participation, up to $30 per year.”

That works out to $1.25 an hour.

“Think of how many elderly, handicapped, etc. homeowners will be able to pick up tires along a streambed for hours on end,” says Joan Floyd, a Remington neighborhood activist who has followed the rain tax. Her organization proposed an alternative “Block Maintenance Credit” for people who pledged to keep yards, streets and alleys clean on their block for a year. The proposal went nowhere.

Rain gardens, tree plantings and other runoff-reducing landscaping practices will be eligible for modest credit as well, the published rules say. But some of the requirements may surprise even young environmentalists types. Consider the “Rainwater harvesting” rule, which applies to rain barrels that eco-conscious folks attached to the downspouts of their homes. Typically these are 40 or 55-gallon barrels; the water is held there and used in the garden. Now the rule: “A minimum 400 gallons of storage is required be eligible for this credit. The customer must demonstrate that the water will be used either as irrigation or plumbing service.”

That’s four to eight times what a homeowner would typically use. The credit is $24 per year.

If you own a vacant lot you can get 45 percent off your bill—for that lot. Why a vacant lot—with no buildings or driveways—is not exempt is pretty baffling. The law is meant to mitigate the effects of roofs and pavement. We’ve reached out to DPW to get more information and will publish a story on it soon.

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