Though the truce that it brought about is tentative at best, the Columbia County Commission's latest step on impact fees has something in it to keep everyone happy.
Whether anyone stays happy depends entirely on what happens next.
Commissioners unanimously approved spending up to $50,000 for a professional consultant to lay out the details of implementing impact fees. For many Columbia County taxpayers, though it's another step forward, it seems to come only with dragging feet.
In the midst of bond issues, sales tax referendums and skyrocketing property value reassessments that hit existing homeowners, this newspaper for the past 10 years has called on the county to implement impact fees on new-home purchasers. Whatever the haggling details of impact fees, it's a basic issue of fairness.
Only since the election, and re-election, of County Commission Chairman Ron Cross have county officials, in baby steps, started actually considering impact fees.
First, they followed the state-mandated process by convening an impact fee study committee. State law calls for at least 40 percent of the committee to come from the builder community; Columbia County's committee had 50 percent, plus a member of a builder's family. No one was then surprised when the stacked committee voted against recommending impact fees.
Also to no surprise, builders don't like impact fees. While most of their objections have been based on studies that they claim demonstrate growth already pays for itself, they really have twofold fears: That it will hurt their pocketbooks now, and hurt them more later.
The immediate fear is that an impact fee will flatten the county's growth curve, though not even their own studies back up that worry. The future fear is once implemented at a reasonable level - whatever that might be - that an impact fee will become a cash cow.
The latter is an entirely legitimate worry - and one that even the most ardent impact fee fans must oppose. Impact fees should be part of a broad mix of revenue streams for the county, resulting in a lower overall tax burden. None of it should be an excuse to squeeze builders unfairly, or to grow government unwisely.
Tom Werner, a developer who on Tuesday spoke to commissioners in opposition to impact fees, says the fees are "inevitable," as Columbia County follows a nationwide trend for high-growth communities struggling to pay for rising demand in services.
Columbia County commissioners' vote to take the next step in the process doesn't necessarily confirm that inevitability. But it brings it one welcome, baby-step closer.
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