No 'Rain Tax' But A Vital Stormwater Runoff Plan

2019-02-08 | Record

Gaining public support for infrastructure projects is often a fool's errand.

Taxpayers, particularly in heavily taxed, heavily regulated New Jersey, are hesitant to spend another dime on repairs and upgrades they can't readily see or imagine being essential for the state's future

This is often true for local school bond referendums, or in regard to municipal upgrades such as refurbishing of a city hall or police station.

"I don't even have a kid in the school" and "What's wrong with the old one?" are common refrains.

There is even blow-back when money is sought for more obvious road and bridge repairs. Or, on a larger scale, for a new commuter tunnel under the Hudson River.

Thus, it is no surprise that those opposed to sensible, long-needed legislation to update New Jersey's aging water infrastructure and stormwater systems have taken to calling the proposal a "rain tax."

Such a tag is a Twitter feed dream; it's simple, it's catchy. It's also not accurate.

The bill, largely backed by Democrats and environmental groups, and largely opposed by Republicans, would let towns, counties and local authorities charge property owners a fee based on how much they contribute to runoff for upgrades to stormwater systems. The fixes are needed to stop further pollution of New Jersey's waterways, already among the most poisoned in the nation. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a full rehabilitation of the state's stormwater system would cost $15.6 billion.

While many of New Jersey's rivers, lakes and other bodies of water have rallied in recent decades thanks to the end of our area's heavy industrial period and the effect of the 1972 Clean Water Act, many are still besieged by runoff and sewage, especially in heavy flooding. As NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey reported, state waters are still so impaired that 65 percent cannot support drinking water supplies, 75 percent cannot be used for recreation and 85 percent cannot support aquatic life.

The bill, S-1073, does not directly impose any fees on property owners, or a wide-ranging tax on a community. Instead, it allows municipalities and counties to create their own local stormwater utilities that could then charge property owners a fee based on "a fair and equitable approximation" of how much runoff is generated from their property.

Supporters of the legislation, such as Chris Sturm, a water policy expert with New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that advocates a balance between economic development and environmental protection, point out that the bill is aimed primarily at large commercial properties like strip malls or office parks, where large amounts of asphalt and concrete allow stormwater to easily flow offsite, gather pollutants and discharge into a waterway.

"The bill allows discretion for the local utility, because different places require different solutions," Sturm said. "This will be negligible for the vast majority of homeowners. This is for properties that have large impervious surfaces."

In short, here is a problem that is not going to get better on its own. There is no natural corrective. Indeed, it is a problem too long neglected already. Simply labeling what seems a promising and workable remedy to the problem a "rain tax" and walking away is not going to solve it.