Report: school impact fees OK

The district gets a second opinion, after complaints by a parent.

School impact fees on new homes are collected properly under state law, an attorney for the Bainbridge Island School District says.

G. Richard Hill, of the Seattle firm of McCullough Hill Fikso Kretschmer Smith, said in a report released last week that the district is in compliance “with the spirit and the letter of the Growth Management Act and the United States Constitution.” He was retained to review the district’s impact fee program, after the fees were challenged by Daniel Smith, a citizen who follows local school issues.

For more than a decade, a one-time fee of $4,390 has been imposed on each new home constructed on the island. By law, funds raised are to be used to mitigate the “impact” of growth – in this case, the need for more classroom capacity in local public schools. At its present amount, the fee is said to cover about one-third of the cost of adding a new classroom seat through building construction.

In January, an attorney retained by Smith argued that the fee was “not reasonably necessitated by new development,” and was not proportional to growth impacts. He also alleged the city had not adopted a proper capital facilities plan to authorize impact fee collection; should the program be challenged in court, the attorney said, the district could be forced to give back fees already collected.

While legally arcane, the questions have serious implications for local school construction funding. Of the $33 million spent by the district in recent years to construct Sakai Intermediate School and add a new wing to Bainbridge High School, some $6.138 million came from impact fees – money Smith’s attorney said could have to be refunded to home builders.

Since Smith’s complaint, the city has continued to collect the fee on the school district’s behalf, holding the funds until the questions could be resolved. School officials hired Hill, said to be an expert on the legalities of impact fees, as an independent counsel to consider the matter.

Smith’s concerns, Hill wrote in his report, “appear primarily based on a misapprehension of the facts.”

Hill did say the school district and the city should “be more clear” in their planning documents that explain the impact fee program and how the district uses the money; nevertheless, he said, the district having to refund fees already collected was improbable.

“In over 10 years, no developer has requested an adjustment of the fee,” Hill said. “Any person who wishes to challenge the fee would need to request an administrative adjustment. It is unlikely that any court would agree to consider a claim for fee reimbursement from any person who has paid fees to date.”

The district relayed Hill’s findings to the office of Brian Sonntag, state auditor, saying it would cooperate if the matter were looked into by the state.

“We are confident the school system oeperates within the intent and under the standards of applicable laws,” Ken Crawford, district superintendent, wrote in a May 24 letter to Sonntag.

This week, Smith said he could not comment on Hill’s findings because he had not yet read the report. He only commissioned his legal review of the impact fee program, he said, to answer his own questions and as a prelude to a meeting with City Councilman Bill Knobloch.

“If (the school district) would take something that’s not even addressed to them and run with it, I guess that’s their prerogative,” he said.

But, Smith said, the means to achieve good government, like good science, “is asking good questions, great questions, quality questions.”

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