Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke

Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke speaks at a council meeting. (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna / June 11, 2012)

Kleine said city lawyers analyzed the language in the law and determined the plan does not violate the law.

"Our lawyers don't read that as a requirement," he said.

Claudia Friedetzky, of the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter, questioned the city's strategy. "The money is supposed to be used to meet a federal mandate," she said. "I would question why they wouldn't use all the money they could for stormwater management."

Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of the local environmental group Blue Water Baltimore, said she understands the mayor's desire to lower property taxes, but doesn't want the city to undermine the effort to reduce stormwater pollution.

"I'm a resident — I want to see my property tax reduced," Van der Gaag said. But she said the proposed stormwater fee that some are complaining about wouldn't need to be so high if it were added to the $10 million currently being spent.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he is concerned that Baltimore's fees are three times as large as some other jurisdictions. Baltimore County has offered businesses up to a 80 percent credit for the fees, he said, while Anne Arundel County has capped the fees at no more than 20 percent of an organization's property tax.

"That's a concern of mine," Young said of the fees the mayor has proposed. "We're looking at trying to see how we can lower the fees and how we can phase them in."

Many see wisdom in the mayor's plan, however.

Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell, a Baltimore Democrat and a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, supports the move.

"We have the highest property tax rate in the state, and it is very burdensome to property owners and it is a deterrent for people moving back into the city," Jones-Rodwell said. "I think the mayor is making a prudent decision."

City Councilman Robert W. Curran said he backs the mayor's plan, citing in particular a need for nonprofits to contribute more to city coffers. "I'm not going to be a part of any mitigation of stormwater fees for nonprofits," he said. "Nonprofits need to belly up to the table."

Van der Gaag, of Blue Water Baltimore, said additional funds are needed because the city's network of underground storm sewers has not been kept up over the years. She pointed out the sinkhole that shut down part of Monument Street in August as evidence of the city's crumbling infrastructure.

"We have the most impervious surface of any jurisdiction in the state. We were built before there was any stormwater management," she said. "You can't change that just because you don't want to pay the fee."

Clarke's amendments would phase in the fees for the first three years and then allow the Board of Estimates to set the rates. Anne Arundel is considering a similar phase-in and a cap that would mean the government couldn't charge a business any more than 25 percent of its property tax bill.

City Councilman Bill Henry, like Clarke and Curran a member of the committee considering the issue, said the panel will continue to hold work sessions. He said he believes the council will be able to pass a fee bill by July 1.

"It wouldn't surprise me if we ended up with a compromise," he said.

Reporters Yvonne Wenger and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

Fees around the region

Around the Baltimore region, officials have taken varying approaches to the stormwater fee required by state law.

•In Baltimore City, under the administration's plan, single-family homes would be charged $48 to $144 a year, while larger properties would have to pay $72 per 1,050 square feet per year.

•Baltimore County has approved charging homeowners $18 to $36 a year. Businesses face much higher fees. An apartment complex with 127,680 square feet of impervious surface on a 5-acre lot could be charged about $4,400 a year. A shopping mall could be charged more than $30,000. But owners of commercial properties could get credits for up to 80 percent of the fee if they have taken enough steps to manage stormwater runoff.

•Harford County passed a flat fee of $125 year for residential properties and a fee of $7 per 500 square feet of impervious area of commercial, industrial and apartment structures. However, residents and business owners are required to pay only 10 percent of the rates over the next year.

•The Howard County Council, in a divided vote, approved a plan under which the average residential property owner will be charged about $105 annually. Both commercial and residential property owners will be charged $15 per 500 square feet of impervious surface. A property owner with 7,000 square feet of impervious surface can expect to pay $210 a year.

•Anne Arundel County has proposed a fee of $34 per year for owners of townhouses and condominiums, $85 for single-family homes and $170 for homes in rural and agricultural areas. The bill, which could be changed, would require nonresidential properties, including businesses and churches, to pay about $1,323 per impervious acre per year.

•In Carroll County, officials have yet to propose a fee schedule.