Salisbury Council approves stormwater fees plan

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A local version of the much maligned and misunderstood “rain tax” was unanimously approved by the Salisbury City Council this week, over the objection of the local Chamber of Commerce and others who sought to table the measure.

Technically a “utility fee,” the charge was was proposed when Barrie P. Tilghman still served as mayor more than five years ago. The fee idea was resuscitated last year after a University of Maryland study listed about $25 million in desirable stormwater upgrades in Salisbury.

The infrastructure improvements would help curtail polluted stormwater runoff from entering the Wicomico River, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

Nine counties and Baltimore City have been mandated by the federal government to meet stormwater regulations to aid the bay. Salisbury and Wicomico are not among those jurisdictions.

The university study set the utility fee for Salisbury property owners at $40 annually; city officials have said no more than $20 per property would be required each year.

In its vote Monday, the council did not set a fee. That number will be further determined and possibly enacted as as an ordinance next year.

The Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, in a news release circulated to the business community by Chamber CEO Ernie Colburn just prior to the vote, asked that the council table the stormwater utility fee ordinance.

“Our members still have questions regarding what the implementation may actually look like and what sort of fees they can expect their business and/or residences to incur,” Colburn wrote.

“The Chamber appreciates the efforts of incorporating a robust credit system into the legislation, but believe that this issue merits more time, more study of the impact, and more information.”

Council President Jake Day, who has taken a leadership position on the matter, called the vote and fee “the right thing to do.”

“Having worked to cut many fees, it is not an easy thing to consider a new fee,” he said. “For 105 years, Salisbury has had stormwater infrastructure in the ground and until (Monday) night we have never adequately had a plan to take care of it.

“While it decayed and while the Wicomico River got dirtier, we all let the political winds blow around any potential funding collected through property taxes,” he said.

Day said the measure goes beyond simple pollution control.

“This modest fee — $5 per quarter — will show state and federal funding agencies we are serious about fixing our infrastructure and cleaning our river,” he said. “I can finally sit across the table from perennial flood victims who live and own property in the low ground — Downtown business owners and West Side residents in particular — and say that those on the high ground and citywide are going to start to address this problem with them beginning now.”

Colburn, who represents more than 800 business members, said the community might consider a “wait and see” approach — a new gubernatorial administration will soon rule Annapolis and there are questions about how Gov.-elect Larry Hogan will handle storm water management.

Day, however, maintains the issues are separate.

“Anyone who tries to connect this to the State Stormwater Law is confused,” he said. “There are 700 municipal stormwater utilities in the United States and every one of those cities and towns takes care of its infrastructure better than Salisbury.

“The State Stormwater Law that created a mandatory fee in the 10 largest counties has nothing to do with every municipality’s imperative to take care of the infrastructure they have,” Day said. “This is a modest way to right that wrong.”

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