As Marylanders, we all want a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay. As a lifelong resident of a small waterfront city at the head of the Bay, I know and appreciate the benefits of living along the country’s largest estuary. Boating, fishing and crabbing all have become elements of the quintessential Maryland lifestyle, to say nothing of the role the Bay plays in our economy.
There is no disagreement about what stands in the way of revitalizing the health of the Chesapeake. Scientists, environmental advocates and policy leaders agree that pollution from nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment runoff are factors in the health of the Bay. One source of this pollution is the stormwater that washes over paved and developed surfaces and then makes its way into our waterways and ultimately the Bay.
Recognizing that this is a source of pollution that can be addressed through better engineering, the Environmental Protection Agency established stringent requirements under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, in keeping with the EPA’s recent Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan mandate. These developments have been applauded by the environmental community at large as an audacious step toward improving water quality in our country, and in the Bay in particular.
I share their zeal for a healthy Bay. On some level, we all do. But in these trying economic times, our love for the Bay and our desire to improve its health must be tempered by considering what we can afford when Marylanders face high unemployment, lower incomes and tighter household budgets.
In Harford County, we estimate that the requirements created by the EPA’s permitting process will cost approximately $30 million per year over a three-year period. And that is just the first phase.
During the 2012 regular session of the Maryland General Assembly, the state legislature passed a bill requiring 10 of the state’s largest jurisdictions to charge a local stormwater utility fee to fund these infrastructure improvements.
Applying this new, mandated expense to our tax base, it threatens to become an estimated 14 percent across-the-board increase on our property tax rates — one of the largest tax increases in recent history. Now consider that stormwater and urban runoff from Maryland are the source of around 5 percent of the sediment and 2 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Bay. Are the benefits to the Bay worth the strain that the implementation of these improvements will cause for our working families and the young adults trying to buy their first homes?
Living in Havre de Grace where the Susquehanna River flows into the Bay and in the shadow of the Conowingo Dam, I am keenly aware that the health of the Bay is dependent more on what flows into it from states other than our own. Indeed, the Susquehanna River, which flows through New York and Pennsylvania, is responsible for nearly 27 percent of the sediment, 41 percent of the nitrogen and 25 percent of the phosphorus in the Bay as a whole, and those percentages are significantly higher if you only consider the portion of the Bay that is in Maryland rather than Virginia.
Unfortunately when the EPA sought guidance and input from the states on this issue, our state leaders failed to stand up for the taxpayer. While the other states are subject to similar mandates, they are rightly proceeding with caution. Maryland’s leaders, on the other hand, chose to make matters worse and more expensive. And in keeping with recent precedent in Annapolis, the state has delegated to the counties the responsibility of collecting these fees and in making the infrastructure improvements.
An important part of governing is finding the right balance between our policy goals and the allocation of the resources available to us. Marylanders should realize the harsh reality that county officials across the state are coming to terms with: that the costs of implementing these mandated improvements will make the recent shift of teacher pension costs seem like a drop in the bucket.
At what point do we collectively as Maryland taxpayers say enough?
David R. Craig, a Republican, is the Harford County executive. He is a retired educator and school administrator and previously has served as mayor and city councilman in Havre de Grace, and as a state delegate and state senator.