I’ve heard the buzzphrase “growth pays for growth” quite a lot since I’ve been down here. It took the Wicomico County Council to make it happen. I imagine the lineup for building permits is going to be quite long around Memorial Day (the fees take effect in 60 days hence), so any projects inhouse for us that are situated here just got on the fast track – I know enough about developers to know that they aren’t going to want to spend $1,524 per condo unit unnecessarily. To give you an example of a project I’m working on, that fee would cost the owner/developer an extra $62,000. (It’s hypothetical since the building will be in Accomack County, VA.)
I’ll grant you that the going price of $700,000 per in that example isn’t going to be affected much. However, there’s two directions that this can go in since the precedent is set now, and both of them worry me. One scenario I see playing out is that we’re going to see a never-ending call for hikes in impact fees or the expansion in scope to when a school building needs some sort of renovation but the fees aren’t enough to cover it. I realize the “return” provision was placed into the law where fees unused for six years are returned to the developers but, honestly, once government gets its greedy little hands on the money, it’s not going anywhere. There’s always SOMETHING that needs to be fixed on a school. Look at the example of the poor students having to suffer in the late spring and early fall because there’s no air conditioning in their building.
The second downfall I can sense is where the fee structure expands to certain home renovations. As I understand it, the fee only is charged to new housing units being built. I may as well be the first to point this out. What if a landlord changes a single-family home to a duplex or triplex? Would that not impact schools? Could the County Council, strapped for money because of the constant cry for better school facilities, decide in its wisdom that adding a bedroom onto your existing house is a sure sign another future Wicomico student is on the way, and thus merits an “impact fee”?
I listened to “Cato” this morning on Bill Reddish’s show. He did make a refutation to one of my earlier arguments that has merit. It’s true that, whether there’s a fee or not, the market will be the final arbiter of housing prices and the extra $5,000 would likely end up mostly out of the developer’s pocket rather than from the end user. But I’m not sure that’s a good way to encourage the capital infusion necessary for Wicomico County to prosper. It may help out the surrounding counties a little though.
There’s things that bother me about the whole school situation in general, and the impact fee passage is an ideal time to bring it up. It’s my understanding that Bennett High School has 400 more students than what it was designed for. But where do they come up with that number?
In my schooling days, back in the 1970’s, it was commonplace to have 30 kids in a classroom. It was also not a big deal that one school I attended was first built in 1909 as a small-town high school, and even with its later conversion to a middle school, hadn’t been renovated in a major way since the 1950’s.
I’m most familiar with Ohio’s regulations on school buildings. A few years ago, they did a comprehensive study on all the schools in the state and the majority of them had physical plants that weren’t deemed to be up to snuff. So the state went ahead and mandated either renovating existing schools or building new – generally any school over 30 years old was targeted for replacement. To date, this has cost the state almost $5 billion over ten years, and the job is about halfway done. They’ve already completed the work in the district I graduated from. Where there were once 3 public elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and a high school spread among the several small communities that make up the district, now there are 3 schools based on one campus in the rural area where the original high school was built (it’s now the middle school.) And my old school building? Still standing, and
soon to become is now a satellite campus for the local community college. Obviously what wasn’t good enough to the state of Ohio for students in grades 5-8 is just fine for adult students. Hmmmm.
It’s surprising that Maryland hasn’t tried something like this. But at the time Ohio started this, they were flush with cash. Now they’re sort of stuck with this program at the expense of higher taxes for state residents.
That aside, new school buildings are nice. They certainly can create a lot of jobs in the architectural field; at one time I had a job at a firm that almost exclusively did schools. But to me, it’s not necessarily the building that makes the school, it’s the teaching that goes on inside. There I have the biggest problem, and you can build a Taj Mahal school without solving it.
But back to the subject at hand. To me, the jury is definitely still out on this impact fee concept. It’s going to be interesting to see which direction this goes in once the 2006 election is past and a new County Council faces the same old problems with the schools, as well as with the roads and the services. My fear is that growth isn’t just going to pay for growth, but eventually for unnecessary largesse as well.