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Jefferson County is taking the right approach on fees

October 21, 2003|by

Faced with the need to build at least two new schools, the Jefferson County, W.Va., Commission is moving ahead with a plan to enact development impact fees. Their conservative approach to what can be a controversial subject seems the right one.

It's not as if the commissioners have rushed into the matter. It's been discussed for 12 years and the list of items county officials hoped to fund with the fees has been whittled down from more than five to just the school system. After a consultant said that a fee of $8,300 per new home would be justified, the commission opted to enact one of just $7,121.

It's an approach similar to one used in nearby Frederick County, Md., since 1993, and which now brings in $5 million to $6 million a year, based on an estimated 2,000 housing starts. Like Jefferson County, Frederick County officials looked at using the fee to pay for a range of services, but instead settled on just schools and libraries.

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Frederick County's decision came in part because of the difficulty of administering impact fees. West Virginia court cases could affect such issues differently, but in Frederick County, officials found that they could only use the fees to maintain services at existing levels. For example, that meant that the fees could be used to keep student-teacher ratios at 25-to-1, but not to reduce them to 20-to-1.

When introduced, Frederick County's fees generated much controversy, but officials there said that the furor diminished over time, as builders discovered that new homes were easier to sell if the local schools weren't overcrowded.

In the best of all possible worlds, impact fees would not be necessary. No doubt they will make the process of governing more complicated and several new county employees will be needed. And certainly the fees will raise the price of a new home.

But the alternative is raising the property taxes of everyone, including long-term residents who paid taxes for years to help build the schools that now exist. Impact fees are a fair method to get new residents to pay for the educational services that their children require.

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