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Excise tax panel should beware 'simple' answers

July 03, 2007

As Washington County's Excise Tax Task Force begins the work of studying whether the fee designed to pay for the costs of growth is adequate or fair, citizens should be wary of one argument - that cutting the fee is all that's needed to encourage construction of affordable housing.

Much the same arguments held off the imposition of impact fees years ago and the result was that when growth picked up, schools, roads and other infrastructure weren't ready to handle it.

If the fee is going to be cut substantially, that reduction ought to be tied to a requirement that more affordable homes be built.

It won't be easy. In May, Richard Willson, executive director of the Washington County Housing Authority, wrote that even families who earn the $64,100 that is now the county's median income can only purchase homes costing $220,000 or less.

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The good news is that prices have dropped somewhat since May, but in most cases, for people born and raised in Washington County, salaries haven't increased as quickly as home prices. But for those willing to commute from the metro areas, local prices are a bargain.

For those without that buying power, Willson said, the choice is to look to the west or to the north - outside of the county - for more affordable housing.

Willson noted that those who commute outside the area have less time to be involved in the community.

That's one reason to take another look at the 2005 affordable housing task force report. The county has done a few things, including making county employees eligible for the state's "Keys for Employees" program to help with closing costs and providing a fee break for new homes under 1,500 square feet.

That last measure, unfortunately, coupled with a slowdown in new home construction, contributed to an $11 million shortfall.

The new task force's job is to craft a plan to provide enough revenue for school and road construction, but significantly reducing the fee would require a faster growth rate to cover costs.

This is not a simple issue and citizens should beware of the argument that cutting fees will solve all of the county's housing problems.

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