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Council repeals fee policy

April 13, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - The Hagerstown City Council on Tuesday repealed a policy that had collected more than $200,000 in fees since December after city officials learned the policy guiding the fee collection was illegal.

"I would encourage my fellow council members to do what none of us want to do. ... Rescind the policy, which is, unfortunately, not legal," City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said shortly before the 5-0 vote to repeal the policy was recorded.

The council's resolution to repeal the so-called Interim School Impact Fee Policy also authorized the return of the money collected under the fee.

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The council adopted the policy in December in an effort to raise money for county public schools that serve city residents.

City officials have said the policy was prompted by reports that schools inside the city are facing stress from overcrowding as a result of new home construction.

The city adopted the policy Dec. 14, imposing a fee of up to $8,500 on new homes. The policy was set to expire July 1.

But the policy soon met legal challenges in the form of three letters from attorneys representing local developers. The lawyers questioned the policy, saying the city had improperly imposed the fee, which adversely affected their clients.

Although no one took the city to court over the policy, some city officials feared that possibility.

Tuesday's vote to repeal the policy was the second attempt in less than a month to end the policy.

The council had taken up the possibility of repealing the policy March 29. The council voted 4-0 that night against the advice of the City Attorney's Office, upholding the school impact fee.

Metzner was absent at the March 29 voting session, but Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire spoke out in favor of keeping the fee in place, saying he believed keeping the fee in place was more important than bowing to legal threats the city had received.

The policy, however, was illegal, City Attorney John Urner said after Tuesday's meeting.

The city has some authority to raise taxes and fees, but not when it comes to schools, Urner said. For the city to be able to do so, it would have needed special permission in the form of legislation from the General Assembly.

Urner said that because the city was only planning to collect the fee for a short time, it made more sense to repeal the city's policy.

Urner said that, basically, the city "tried to do a service for the county (schools) and it didn't work."

New homes likely soon will be subject to a similar fee from the county government.

The General Assembly on Monday passed legislation allowing county officials to revise their excise tax on new residential and commercial buildings.

The law would allow the county to charge a flat fee of up to $13,000 per residential unit, except in residential developments with 25 units or more. In that case, the county could charge up to $26,000 per unit.

A large portion of the money raised through the fee would be set aside for school construction projects.

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