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Future of impact fees

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By Carolyn Ten Broeck, Editor

A two-hour brainstorming session last Thursday ended with the Williston City Council telling its manager to make a recommendation on the state of impact fees.

The directive began in March 2012 when the council voted to put a one-year moratorium on the fees, assessed on new construction to help offset the costs of infrastrcuture expansion.

With the deadline looming to either extend the moratorium, at the Jan. 22 meeting, council City Manager Scott Lippmann to draft an ordinance that would abolish the fees.

But on Feb. 5, Lippmann asked the council to reconsider its decision, telling the councilmen that staff didn’t have enough information and recommended extending the moratorium.

Lippmann said at that time he was concerned if there was rapid growth in Williston, the city would not have enough funds to expand water and sewer services.

In a 3-2 vote Feb. 5, the council voted to table preparing an ordinance to abolish the fees until a workshop could be held.

Thursday night, Mayor Gerald Hethcoat and the council (except Jack Screws who was absent due to a death in the family) met with Lippmann to weigh the pros and cons of the fees.

Lippmann, who has been on the job since December, said he did not like the way the fees had been calculated  or administered in the past.

He referenced one business that had paid $12,000 and another similar business that had paid zero.

Lippmann said such actions were “uneven.”

He suggested if council chose to continue with the fees, the city wait until the end of one full billing year for commercial enterprises and charge impact fees based on actual usage.

When expansion comes for infrastructure, all agreed the money had to come from somewhere and it was a matter of pay now or pay later.

An example used throughout the evening was if a customer’s bill is currently $50.38 and expansion is warranted, the customer would pay $76.52 with impact fees in place or $86.18 if there were none.

Council members agreed it is better to pay a little more each year than see a drastic price hike all at once in the future.

Councilor Charles Goodman, the council’s most outspoken opponent of impact fees, said the city’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) should encompass infrastructure upgrades.

He also stressed that he has nothing to gain personally or professionally (Goodman is a contractor) whether or not the city has impact fees since that is a cost incurred by the property owner, not the builder.

Goodman also urged council members to ask themselves what they wanted for the city–to bring in business or keep out business. First and foremost, he said, the city has to decide what it wants.

He also said there are other options available to help with funding expansion projects and suggested the council consider everything  in its grasp.

“Impact fees hinder what we are trying to do,” said Councilor Cal Byrd. “We need to use common sense and set aside money. We need to plan just like we do at home.”

“I’m against impact fees,” Goodman said, but added he would concede to another year’s moratorium. “It will take that long to figure it out.”

By the end of the two hour worskhop, council found itself facing three options:

1) Do nothing and let the current moratorium expire, therefore initiating impact fees.

2) Continue with the moratorium.

3) Abolish impact fees indefinitely.

After much discussion, expecially on if the moratorim is extended what would be its duration.

Council President Jason Cason favored an extension that deadlined with the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. He said because the council and city manager would be preparing the budget and holding discussions about the finances, the timing and relevance of impact fees would be critical to budget preparation.

Goodman said he favored nothing short of a year’s extension and would not vote for anything less at the meeting Tuesday.

Council then told Lippmann to make a recommendation and it would come to a vote.

The council meets at 7 p.m. March 5.