A tone-deaf city government

It took several months longer than anticipated – and we don’t yet know exactly what the toll will be – but last night 80 percent of Salisbury City Council gave 100 percent of local property owners another tax to pay by approving a stormwater utility on a 4-0 vote, with newly-appointed Jack Heath being absent.

Council President Jake Day “doesn’t expect” the fee to be more than $20 a year for homeowners, and expects to raise $1.25 million annually from the “rain tax” – and yes, I think the moniker is appropriate given the business fee will be determined by the amount of runoff they produce. According to the latest Census data, though, there are 13,401 housing units in Salisbury so my public school math tells me that businesses are going to pay almost 80% of the total, to the tune of almost $1 million annually.

Interestingly enough, I was quoted in the Daily Times story from last Thursday from a post I wrote in February when the idea came up, and I think the point is still valid: we don’t know what impact there will be from this tax hike on the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay. It seems to me that the timing isn’t very good on this one, particularly as the state and county are working to make these entities more business-friendly and new taxes tend to work in the opposite direction.

I was curious about something, so I took a look at the city’s latest budget that was adopted in May. In it, Mayor Jim Ireton points out that “(t)his budget shows levels of monetary surplus at incredibly healthy levels for both the City’s General Fund and the City’s Water and Sewer Utility.” But it also is using some of the proceeds from the wastewater treatment plant settlement on sewer infrastructure, so why do they need this new tax now? Granted, it’s also stated in the budget that ratepayers get a 2.5% break on water and sewer rates this year, but the extra $20 fee will likely eat that savings up and then some.

The budget also makes the case that the $100 a month, give or take, that a residential property owner pays in property taxes provides a cornucopia of services, a palette which includes stormwater management. So we’re already paying for the service with our property taxes, but instead of adding the penny or two that would cover the additional services the city wants to create a new special fund. Currently the Water and Sewer Fund comprises roughly 1/3 of a city budget which runs about $50 million, with property taxes chipping in about $22 million toward the General Fund. With the city of Salisbury increasing the tax rate regularly, it’s doubtful we’ll see a corresponding decrease in property taxes to offset the new fee.

And while I’m not an expert on the city charter by any means, my question is why can’t the purview of the Water and Sewer Utility (which has a large surplus) be simply expanded to stormwater? Generally infrastructure improvements to the stormwater system involve changes to the remaining utilities as well, so the same work may well come out of two (or three) different funds given the city’s idea. It may be more efficient and less taxing on the city’s residents to amend the charter to add stormwater to the existing water and sewer utility.

So let’s review: the fee would cover something which is already supposed to be paid for, in an amount we haven’t quite determined yet, to achieve projects for which we don’t know the scope but are supposed to address a problem Salisbury contributes little to and is only compelled to deal with because the state refuses to stick up for itself and tell the EPA and Chesapeake Bay Foundation to go pound sand. What could go wrong?

Just remember all this come Election Day next year.

Update 11/26: I actually stumbled upon this as I was researching some items for my next post today, but it’s worth pointing out that Salisbury has justified its adoption of a stormwater utility by saying the town of Berlin has one in place.

The same group, called the Environmental Finance Center – which is part of the University of Maryland but serves as a regional hub for an existing EPA program – did studies to justify the need for Berlin (2012) and Salisbury (2013). The results were pretty much the same, although the suggested fee was higher in Berlin than it was in Salisbury, where they recommended a $40 annual fee for homeowners. Notably, the Salisbury report also recommends fee increases after a period of years – see the chart on page 15. So the problem won’t ever be solved and the program will run an annual surplus that likely won’t be rebated to taxpayers. Moreover, unlike a property tax from which religious-based entities have traditionally been exempt, they have to pay the fee as well.

Also, the fingerprints of the notoriously Radical Green folks of the Town Creek Foundation are on these reports. It’s a group which believes:

We think that true sustainability and resilience – in an increasingly unstable, crisis-prone world – will depend on fundamental transformations of the systems (including the value systems) by which everyday life is organized. These include the systems by which we make and consume energy, food, and materials, and the systems by which we make and enforce social decisions.

We’ve already seen the results of a national “fundamental transformation” over the last six years, and many millions would like to transform back to where we were. But a tone-deaf government just wants to take more out of our pockets rather than prioritize existing resources.

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