Complaint prompts schools to drop fee

t Impact fees will not be collected until questions of legality are settled.

Bainbridge public schools may have been collecting impact fees illegally.

So says an attorney retained by a private citizen to examine the district’s administration of the fees, levied on development to pay for new classroom space.

“In the event of a legal challenge to the impact fee program, it is likely that it would be deemed to violate statutory and constitutional mandates and that the court would require improperly collected fees to be refunded,” wrote John Keegan of the Seattle firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, in a summary of his findings.

Keegan was retained by islander Daniel Smith, who has questioned the district’s impact fee program; at issue is the administration of more than $5 million collected from developers and homebuilders on new projects over the last decade. Funds have been spent on Sakai Intermediate School and Bainbridge High School reconstruction, among other projects.

State law allows cities to levy impact fees on new construction, to pay for infrastructure needed to keep up with growth. The current school impact fee of $4,390 on a new single-family home is said to be about 30 percent of the cost of adding a new seat in a classroom.

Smith’s complaint has prompted the school district to stop collecting the fees until the matter is settled; the district had already retained its own council to look into the program, and the findings will be forwarded to the state for review, school board members said at Thursday’s meeting.

“The bottom line is, we’ve always tried to do it right,” school board member Bruce Weiland said, “and if we’ve made some inadvertent errors, we’ll correct them.”

Smith did not appear at Thursday’s meeting, and declined to comment Friday.

The report, which Smith also sent to the Bainbridge City Council, alleged numerous problems. Although somewhat technical, most pertained to the ordinance by which the city authorizes the school district to collect the fees.

Among the allegations is that existing “deficiencies” in school infrastructure are not identified in the city’s capital facilities plan, nor is it specified how new developments would contribute to them.

Superintendent Ken Crawford said the district last year received legal opinion saying that the program is sound, “within a defensible variation from best practice and legal parameters,” he wrote in a Jan. 19 memo to the school board.

But the district will address the concerns Keegan raised, Crawford said.

Thursday, board and superintendent praised Smith, who sits in on most board meetings and to whom the board has looked for advice on more than one occasion.

“The one thing I regret is that we didn’t communicate with him clearly enough,” Weiland said. “We welcome anyone’s analysis of our impact fee practices.”

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