SUMMERVILLE — Controversial stormwater fees would be reduced 30 percent across the board if a preliminary vote by County Council this week holds up.
The reduction would take effect this year, meaning taxpayers would see their property taxes drop $5 to $20, depending on their stormwater fee category.
The ordinance also exempts churches and religious campgrounds from the fees.
The reduction was proposed by Councilman George Bailey, who likes to sit at his council seat with a little placard in front of him reading, “Less taxes, less regulation, less government.” He appears to be making some good of it.
The 7-0 vote indicated that this ordinance won’t face much opposition in the two ensuing votes needed to approve it.
Stormwater fees are perhaps the most reviled tax among residents in a county where political fortunes rise and fall based on the ability to hold the line on taxes.
The fees are forced by federal law to help pay to prevent and clean up stormwater, or rain runoff, considered a leading cause of pollution in rivers, lakes and estuaries. They are charged based on impervious surface — concrete, roofs or similar areas that don’t absorb rain.
Some local governments have bridled at collecting the fees. Programs have treaded water while regulators, legislators and courts wrestle over just what has to be done. Dorchester County has made some improvements and mounted a public education effort.
For eight years, County Council dealt with angry residents as it tried out methods of assessing the fees equitably for rural, residential or business property owners who have differing amounts of impervious surface.
County staff fended their way through questionable billings and misbillings.
Elected to County Council in 2010, Bailey vowed to go through the budget line by line to fund only what was necessary. He’s worked his way from county office to office — occasionally raising hackles — to see just how the offices worked.
He was poring over Public Works fund balances when he realized that the stormwater fees doubled from 2009 to 2010, after the county installed a new method for assessing the fees. Bailey found the department had on the books what turned out to be about $1 million more in accumulated revenue than its $2 million per year budget demanded.
“When I was politicking, the biggest thing I heard was, what is this stormwater fee (for)?” Bailey said.
“I didn’t find anything of any magnitude going on in stormwater,” he said. “I asked, are we just building another bureaucracy?”
The 30 percent solution is just the start, he said. He’s looking for ways to cut more, and do the minimum mandated by the law.
County Councilman David Chinnis saluted Bailey on the proposal.
“If we are preemptively collecting taxes for what the federal government might do, then we need to open up our wallets, because they might do anything. Or they might not,” Chinnis said.
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