Impact fee challenge is misguided

Whither go the gadfly?

  • Friday, March 2, 2007 3:00pm
  • Opinion

A curious creature, the gadfly.

Buzzing about town in the name of the public interest, it is known to alight for hours in sparsely populated civic halls, there to observe the transactions of

officials in our municipal and educational spheres.

An undeniably valuable part of the civic ecosystem, the fly promotes a healthy balance by challenging prevailing notions and conventional thinking, the better to keep minority views in play as decisions are made and public money spent. Which is not to say its sense of direction is infallible. Sometimes the fly finds honey; sometimes…something else.

As reported today, city and school officials find themselves at the wrong end of a legal challenge by a Bainbridge resident apparently unhappy with the planned use of $2 million in impact fees for construction of the new Bainbridge High School wing. The challenge (technically filed against the city, with the school district joining in defense as an intervening party) could also affect the use of such fees for future projects. To that extent, it has serious implications for island taxpayers even if the issues seem picayune.

Briefly: Washington state law allows public agencies to collect impact fees – essentially, a tariff on growth – on the construction of new homes, to pay for the expansion of public facilities needed to accommodate incoming residents. On Bainbridge Island, the city collects a school impact fee of $4,390 on each new single-family home ($1,170 on apartments and condo units). When the school district needs to put up a new building for its burgeoning student body, it applies to the city for reimbursement of some of the construction costs. For the new BHS wing, approximately $2 million of the $20.86 million project cost will come from the impact fee fund – money that taxpayers won’t have to cover through bonds.

The legal challenge is based on what transpired at a series of public meetings held last year, through which the city adopted various long-range facilities plans including those for schools. The argument goes something like this: the meetings were poorly publicized, ergo not enough citizens attended them, ergo the plans produced through those meetings were incomplete or inaccurate, ergo impact fees spent according to those plans is improper, ergo…let’s go to court. The complaint further argues that officials have understated the current capacity of the high school campus, and that citizens are therefore being overcharged for the planned expansion.

Certainly, school officials should be held to the letter of the law for capital financing. And with a graying island population – and fewer youngsters moving to the island to make their way through the school system – enrollment may someday plateau to the point that impact fees are no longer a valid way to pay for buildings. But the growth already seen at Bainbridge High School is undeniable, with 1,450 students now stuffed onto a campus built for 950. A new building is needed, and it costs what it costs. It’s hard to see what public purpose is served by a legal challenge that would shift even more of the burden from already-collected impact fees onto the backs of the general taxpayer.

Moreover: the school district and the city are about to spend tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees – many times that, should the complaint make its way from the Growth Management Hearings Board into Superior Court – just to settle the question of whether adequate public notice was given for a couple of obscure meetings that few people would have gone to anyway.

But again, you never know where a gadfly will land.

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