Builders say they aren't necessarily opposed to impact fees; they just want them to be imposed legally and correctly.
That's why Metro Augusta Builders Association President Jake Ivey said Atlanta attorney Deron Hicks was invited to speak at a forum on impact fees April 18 at the Columbia County Government Center Auditorium in Evans.
With picketers outside carrying signs calling for imposition of the fees on new development - and residents, public officials and builders inside listening to him - Hicks said impact fees often are misunderstood.
"There are a lot of misperceptions about impact fees," said Hicks, a 1986 graduate of Evans High School and an attorney representing the Atlanta Homebuilders Association. "Obviously, I came with a bit of a bias, but I'll try to shoot right down the middle."
His two-hour presentation laid out the history of impact fees in Georgia and explained how the fees can be imposed and how the money can - and can't - be used.
Approved by the Legislature in 1990, fees are currently imposed in only a handful of Georgia cities and counties, but the number is rising as fast-growing communities seek new funding sources to cope with growth, Hicks said. But he also said the fees themselves won't slow growth: "Impact fees are established to accommodate growth."
The fees can be used for such county needs as water and sewer systems, roads, parks, public safety facilities and libraries, Hicks said, but not for schools. The fees should be used only if a county's needs aren't being met through traditional funding sources such as property and sales taxes, he said.
County officials have discussed seeking a bond referendum to raise at least $30 million for the county's infrastructure needs, and the county Democratic Party - which organized the pickets - has pledged to fight the referendum unless impact fees are considered.
Counties considering impact fees should set up a capital spending plan to prioritize their needs before deciding whether an impact fee is needed, Hicks said, rather than setting up a fee first and then deciding how to spend the anticipated windfall.
Otherwise, "You might as well give my 7-year-old son the JCPenney catalog and a stack of Post-It notes and ask him to tell you what he wants for Christmas," Hicks said.
After finalizing such a plan, commissioners should appoint an advisory committee to study whether the fees are the right way to pay for what is needed, he said.
Whatever the decision, impact fees aren't just an "admission fee on newcomers," Hicks said, because anyone building a new business or home in the county would pay. Exemptions also can't easily be carved out for businesses or even churches, he said, and the fee won't stop residential growth.
"If anything, it accelerates it," Hicks said.
Overall, both sides of the impact fee issue seemed pleased with Hicks' presentation.
"It was fair and balanced," said Democratic Party Chairman Scott Nichols.
Jeri Whitworth, a spokesman for the growth watchdog group CHANGE, agreed.
"The presentation wasn't as anti-impact fees as I expected," she said. "The facts were presented well, with a somewhat negative commentary thrown in."
Ivey also praised the presentation, pointing out that local builders don't oppose impact fees - they simply want the issue to get adequate study, he said.
"Maybe impact fees might be a good thing," County Commissioner Steve Brown said.
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