Fee exemptions pose ethical problems

Published 8:33 am Monday, February 25, 2008

By Staff
If a loaf of bread costs $1, a loaf of bread costs $1.
If a new school costs $20 million, a new school costs $20 million.
That said, Camden officials took the first step on a slippery slope by adopting an impact fee system to pay for schools and took the second step by amending it to exempt certain groups.
Last week, Camden County commissioners agreed to exempt the grandchildren of residents from the $10,0000-per-unit impact fee charged for new schools. Such a fee doesn’t exist in Beaufort County, but it’s only a matter of time before somebody brings it up. As the population of neighboring Pitt County balloons, there may come a time when Beaufort County becomes home for people who may work in Greenville but want a more laid back and affordable lifestyle.
On paper, an impact fee is a tax collected on development to offset the cost of providing services for that development. The selling point is that existing residents shouldn’t have to pay for new roads or schools that are required to meet the demands of a growing population.
Camden County is in an interesting position.
Virginia residents to the north found it was far cheaper to build across the state line in Camden, so they sparked a building boom. It got so bad that the county imposed a moratorium on all large-scale projects in 2003. New residents were flooding into the county faster than the county could handle it.
The solution was to impose a $10,000-per-unit impact fee. The idea went over well for longtime residents. Camden officials sweetened the deal, because they exempted the children of property owners from the $10,000 fee. Last week, the board took it a step further by exempting the grandchildren, too.
That doesn’t sit very well with Carolyn Riggs, a Shiloh resident who stepped down from the board last year.
Riggs said the fee would help the county pay for new schools, which are already at capacity. Exempting some property owners from paying the fee — just because they are relatives of Camden residents — doesn’t give the schools more room, she said.
To be constitutional, impact fees must be uniformly assessed. That means the same impact fee must be assessed on a $50,000 home as on a $500,000 home.
It is true that the influx of new residents puts a strain on local schools, but putting all the burden on those residents isn’t the answer.
Cary reduced its impact fees to spur residential construction when its own study found that residential construction generated $300 to $500 per unit more in local government revenue than what it was costing the city.
Imposing impact fees in Camden County was a knee-jerk reaction to a problem. The changes that followed to exempt some people while charging others made a bad situation worse.