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In an attempt to correct what they once called an egregious error, the Williston City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday night to return over $104,000 in impact fees to property owners.
Council President Jason Cason and Councilor Elihu Ross opposed the action during a roll call vote.
The vote came on the heels of several months of discussion, brought to centerstage by Pyper Kub restaurant owner David Bibby who told council months ago that his research had determined that another restaurant, Melanie’s, had not been charged impact fees.
Doing his own research, City Manager Scott Lippmann concurred that the former city manager and utilities supervisor had indeed waived impact fees for Melanie’s and issued a Certificate of Occupancy that allowed the restaurant to open.
Lippmann told council by his estimate Melanie’s should have been assessed about $18,000 in impact fees.
Tuesday night council had several options in front of it on dealing with the discrepancy.
City Attorney Fred Koberlein advised the council it should act in the best interest of the city’s residents when making a decision.
“Anyway you go, you’re looking at liability,” Koberlein said.
Both Councilors Jack Screws and Cal Byrd said they thought the best way to right the wrong would be refund the impact fees and start over anew.
By refunding the money, the city’s fund earmarked for future water and sewer expansion would be depleted.
Councilor Charles Goodman said a grave mistake had been made by the former city manager who was representing the city. He said he found no fault with Bibby, who brought the matter forward.
“He is not alone,” Goodman said.
But Cason opposed the motion, telling the council the onus of this issue should fall back on the business owner.
“I’m adamantly opposed to giving this money back,” Cason said. “If we turn it back over, any future expansion costs will fall onto all of our citizens and not the ones who’re causing the impact.”
“If you have a law and can’t enforce it,” Goodman said, “it’s not a law.” He then added he had to consider the cost of potentially going to court if someone sued versus the amount of money that would be refunded.
“Why can’t we just send a bill?” Cason asked.
Lippmann said no one had asked Melanie Burchett, the restaurant’s owner, if she would pay the impact fees if they were assessed but she had intimated she could not afford it.
Cason said the city could work with her the way it had with Bibby, who has been paying his assessed fees in installments.
However in the end, the council voted to refund the money to 17 business owners and 13 residents and authorized Lippmann to start the process.
Additionally, the council unanimously approved another impact fee moratorium that will expire March 20, 2014.
During the course of the year, the city will be looking at ways of improving its assessment procedures as well as alternatives to fund future expansion.