Impact fees are rapidly becoming a political "hot potato" in Columbia County due to the misinformation spewed forth by the likes of Democrat candidate Scott Nichols and News-Times publisher Barry Paschal. Others seem to have taken up the cause without being fully versed on the issue.
In December 2005, we were appointed to the Columbia County Impact Fee Committee, which was charged with studying the feasibility of collecting impact fees to help offset growth costs in the county.
In the beginning, the committee was prejudiced in favor of impact fees due to the seemingly easy source of funds to cover the cost of ever-expanding infrastructure requirements. However, the committee was much like the general public in that we had a limited knowledge of how impact fees were implemented, collected and administered. The committee met bi-monthly through March 2005 to learn about impact fees.
... We were able to learn the advantages and disadvantages of impact fees. Impact fees may seem to be an easy solution to the complex problem of funding infrastructure improvements. Builders would just pass the cost on and the new homeowner would pay the cost. New commercial developments would also have to pay their share. It's just not that simple.
The impact fee statute for Georgia is narrowly written and cannot be compared to those of any other state. ... Impact fees may be collected and used for public safety, parks and recreation, library, road construction, water and sewage, and storm water management. However, impact fees can't just be charged and spent at will within these categories. ... You cannot just randomly say we are going to charge everyone the same impact fee.
To collect impact fees, a provable need must be shown for the impacted area, often using a set formula. Because of Patriots Park and Blanchard Park we do not meet the criteria for parks. We have a magnificent new library, so that's out. We have a new emergency management/sheriff's office in Evans. Columbia County Water and Sewer already requires developers to install water and sewer lines, maintain them for a year, and then deed them to the county in addition to the normal tap fees. The majority of the stormwater issues are in existing neighborhoods where the system has reached the end of its design life; therefore, impact fees cannot be used.
Road construction is probably the most obvious need. Road construction funding is complicated because the funding often comes from local, state and federal money. In addition, design and environmental clearances can take years to complete before right of way acquisition even begins. New road projects could take more than seven years, ... which makes the project ineligible for impact fees.
Fees are to be used for capital improvement construction only, with a durable life of 10 years or more. Impact fees cannot be used to furnish, staff, clean, maintain, nor repair the facility or project. Funds must be kept in separate accounts for each of the above uses, and precise records must be kept to ensure there is no co-mingling. Funds not used after seven years must be refunded. Impact fees would only apply to and be collected in the unincorporated areas of the county. ...
In recent years Columbia County has built a new government complex, library, jail, park and recreation areas, performing arts facilities, and a first-class water and sewer system. Columbia County also has a top-notch police, fire and emergency services and the best schools. All this has been accomplished without impact fees and before the recent influx of retail establishments.
These accomplishments raise the question: Is growth paying for itself? The county (funded a study) which shows a house valued at $145,000 will generate sufficient tax revenue to pay for the government services required. The median new home being built in Columbia County is well above this amount. This figure does not include the affect the construction industry has on the local economy.
In 2005 there were 1,300 new homes constructed with about half purchased by local people. Much of what is broadcast in the media and perceived by the general public is that Columbia County is undergoing rampant uncontrolled growth. ... However, growth has allowed this county to build first-class recreation facilities, libraries, etc. to achieve a higher quality of life. Growth is not always a bad thing; ask any stagnant community. ...
The capital improvements bond issue currently being discussed does not have any bearing on whether impact fees are approved. ... Traffic congestion has increased and, during the next five years, the main issue facing Columbia County will be road infrastructure improvements. ... Some of the best funding sources for road projects is special purpose local option sales tax funds and capital improvement bonds. This gives the county the most flexibility in allocating funds. The county can also use these funds as leverage with state and federal funds.
Does Columbia County need additional funds? Yes. Are impact fees the best way to obtain these funds? Not in our opinion.
Ben Brandenburg, Evans
(This letter also was signed by eight other members of the Impact Fee Study Committee: Jean Garniewicz, Julie Batchelor, Tom Gracey, Oliver Owens, Mark Ivey, Tom Werner, Jim Bartley and Bill Easler.)
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