County treads lightly in pursuing stormwater fees from bases

Beaufort County officials are treading lightly as they attempt to collect more than $1 million they say is owed by Beaufort military bases.

County Administrator Gary Kubic said the county is in an argument of semantics with Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Naval Hospital Beaufort, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and the Laurel Bay military housing complex over nearly $1.4 million in fees the county says haven't been paid in four years.

"The legal issue is that they do not consider it a fee; they consider it a tax, and as a military installation they're exempt from local taxes," Kubic said. "We're not upset. We just politely disagree."

Maj. Gabrielle Chapin, spokeswoman for Parris Island and the air station, said, "The military is prohibited by federal law from paying the stormwater fees levied by Beaufort County. We handle all of our own stormwater in addition to some of the county stormwater that runs off (U.S.) 21. Not withstanding the fact that Beaufort County labels the assessments a fee, the fees are being enforced as taxes."

Beaufort County Council created the stormwater management fee in September 2001 to fund efforts aimed at controlling pollution caused by stormwater runoff. In 2005, the county lifted the bases' exemption, which waived stormwater fees for not-for-profit entities, such as schools, churches and the military installations.

Kubic said a state law requires the public to pay the difference between the assessed amount and the amount waived.

"State law said that if you introduced a waiver that the general public then pays the amount waived," he said. "As a result, we had between $500,000 and $1 million each year waived before we reversed that exemption. All we're trying to do with the bases is treat everyone the same under this ordinance."

Residential properties are charged a flat rate that varies by municipality. Commercial and institutional properties are assessed using a formula that weighs heavily the property's amount of impervious surfaces, such as rooftops, driveways and parking lots.

Non-residential property owners can receive tax credits if have their own stormwater management system, as the bases do. The county sets the credit amount case by case.

Kubic said the bases were granted partial rebates, but the longer the bill goes unpaid, the bigger it gets, because of late fees and other penalties.

"We've offered them tax credits, and what it comes down to is that we don't agree with their legal logic," he said. "Each time they get a stormwater bill and that amount goes unpaid, the accrual gets bigger. We don't consider their argument valid."

Chapin said the bases do not receive county services and shouldn't be made to pay for them.

"Beaufort County provides not direct or tangible service or convenience in exchange for this fee," she said.

Other counties exempt military bases from stormwater fees. In Richland County, Fort Jackson is the only property in that county -- apart from public roads and railroad tracks -- that is exempt.

Kubic said the county isn't interested in an acrimonious battle with the military over the fees but said they would consider taking the bases to court if necessary.

"There's a lot of depth to this discussion," he said. "We want to work with the military, and we certainly don't want to appear as though we don't welcome the military. They're a viable part of this community. We are entitled to collect that fee and we hope that we can reach a shared decision. If we can't, then we will decide whether we want to pursue any legal action.

"The reality is that with the F-35 coming on line and everything happening at the bases, we would prefer to stay out of court," he added. "Legal action is the absolute last resort, and I'm not sure we would even take that route."

Brad Samuel, a member of the county's Stormwater Utility Management Board, said any talk of litigation is premature.

"Every meeting that we have, collecting fees from the military is on the agenda and I'm just like 'stop it,' " said Samuel, who is also chairman of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee. "The idea of litigating against the bases over these fees is absurd, and I'm disturbed every time that gets brought up. Threatening litigation, at this point, is completely counterproductive."