Washington, D.C., is the nation’s capital. But beyond the federal monuments and museums, this unique little city-state usually doesn’t get much respect from its neighbors.
Yet when it came to the politically difficult issue of assessing fees to clean up stormwater pollution, the D.C. government — as a model for the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed — seems to have gotten the policy right.
There was no apparent hand-wringing over sparing churches, nonprofits or government agencies: all property owners are required to belly up. From 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, the National Cathedral and Embassy Row, they all pay. Nor are exemptions granted for the district’s large swath of residential properties or even for property owned by the district government itself.
The only impervious surfaces in D.C. spared from stormwater fees are highways, roads and bridges. Pennsylvania Avenue itself. As Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and other Bay watershed states are still ironing out their stormwater remediation policies, they could learn from this pioneer in their midst.
For Maryland especially, a key lesson should be: Don’t let the federal government off the hook. In a stunning display of miscues, state government leaders somehow failed to pick up on the efforts Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., has been making in Congress to require federal agencies to pay local stormwater fees on their properties.
Cardin was acting largely on behalf of the District of Columbia when he got legislation enacted in January 2011 that made it clear that federal agencies must pay fees to local stormwater utilities — as long as other government properties are assessed as well. But he also was acting on complaints from such disparate spots as Gwinnett County, Ga., and Vancouver, Wash., that the feds were stormwater deadbeats. His new law applies nationwide.
“At stake is a fundamental issue of equity: Polluters should be financially responsible for the pollution they cause. That must include the federal government,” Cardin argued.
The new law has made a big difference, according to D.C. officials. Now the feds, who sprawl property-tax-free over a third or more of D.C. land, are making good on their obligations — except for disputes lodged by three defense agencies still in mediation. The federal government also pays stormwater fees to Richmond, Va. and is about to be billed for fees newly approved by the city of Lancaster, Pa.
But Montgomery County has been stiffed by all but two of more than 100 federal agency accounts. The feds contend a last-minute change to 2012 state legislation that exempted state and local governments from paying local stormwater fees gives them a pass, too.
Del. Al Carr, D-18-Montgomery, attempted to close that loophole last year, but his bill was converted by the Senate into what one lobbyist called a Trojan horse that would have delayed the imposition of stormwater fees for two years. It died on its return to the House.
Gov. Martin O’Malley included $2.8 million in his budget for the coming fiscal year in grants to local governments in lieu of the fees they might have charged state properties. But there’s been no sign that gesture will convince federal bill payers to do the same.
Given Uncle Sam’s huge presence in Maryland, the loss of federal customer contributions to stormwater remediation efforts is probably also huge — though some facilities, such as Ft. Meade, have their own stormwater permits.
Critics question the value of charging fees to any government agency because taxpayers foot the bill. The same might be said of churches, whose parishioners have to pay, or nonprofits, whose donors are dunned.
But as Maryland state senators struggle behind the scenes to soften the political bite of the so-called “rain tax,” lessons of the last three decades over which local governments throughout the country have been fighting stormwater pollution suggest the fee-payer base should be broadened, not shrunk.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-43-Baltimore City, notes that broadening the base reduces the individual burden. Beyond that, she said, making everyone part of the problem may inspire them to become part of the solution.
“We need to have incentives for new development to be built in different ways, and we need to have incentives for homeowners and commercial folks and nonprofits to be aware of and change their behavior when it comes to stormwater,” McIntosh said.
That looks like what’s happened in Washington, D.C. In 2012, the district became a national leader in the installation of green roofs, according to the Bay Journal. About 45 football fields’ worth of those garden-style rain catchers sit atop federal buildings.
Maybe not all the credit goes to the district’s everybody-pays-to-play policy, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Hosler is a reporter and commentator for 88.1 WYPR.