Does ‘Rain Tax’ Have a Chance of Staunching State’s Stormwater Runoff?

Tom Johnson | June 19, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Bill voted out of key Senate committee would let towns and counties assess fees on sources of runoff to cover cost of managing stormwater

stormwater runoff
It’s been a system that has been used by most states to deal with an issue that has vexed policymakers in New Jersey for years — increased flooding and pollution fouling state waters with runoff from storms.

But critics call it a rain tax, just another policy to grow government bureaucracy. Nevertheless, legislation to allow counties and towns to impose fees on parking lots and other impervious surfaces to fund stormwater management won approval from a key committee yesterday.

The bill (S-1073) has been kicking around for years. Previously vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie, it is viewed by proponents as a way of finally tackling what is projected as a $15 billion problem: fixing aging stormwater systems that exacerbate flooding and pollution across the state.

“Shame on us that we haven’t done this,” said Sen. Bob Smith, a Democrat from Middlesex and sponsor of the bill. More than 1,500 stormwater utilities have been set up in 41 other states to help local governments deal with the problem, he noted.

“There’s no way municipalities and communities can address this problem,” Smith argued, given the fiscal constraints and state-imposed caps on local governments. The bill could be particularly useful in Ocean County around Barnegat Bay, where there are 2,000 failing stormwater systems, he said.

Long understood as a problem

Stormwater runoff has long been recognized as a huge water-pollution problem; it also increases the likelihood of flooding in the nation’s most densely populated and heavily paved state. Aging infrastructure, much of it poorly maintained, fails to adequately control runoff from parking lots, streets, and farmland, spewing a range of contaminants from heavy metals to oil and fertilizers into waterways.

The bill is permissive, allowing a county or municipality or to collect fees to recover costs for managing stormwater. Alternatively, they can set up a utility authority that can impose fees to pay for a stormwater management system. The money could come from owners of properties with large areas of impervious cover, such as parking lots, malls, and developments.

Sen. Paul Sarlo, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, liked the idea of the bill being permissive but had problems with the fees, which he described as a “rain tax.” Towns could use the rain tax to enhance municipal revenues, he said. “It’s another level of bureaucracy.”

But conservationists and others backed the bill, although with some reservations.

Bill Kibler, policy director for the Raritan Headwaters Association, argued the bill should not exempt agricultural property, which also contributes to stormwater runoff. “We all suffer the consequences of stormwater runoff — whether it is increased flooding or affecting water quality,” he said.

Others pointed to the impact runoff has on the state’s tourism industry, which saw 47 beaches closed last week because of high counts of bacteria in the water. “That’s why we need this bill,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Unlike in past sessions, the bill also drew support from the state Department of Environmental Protection.