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CHARLES TOWN – What costs will future residential and commercial growth create for local government services?

Consider the need to build more classrooms for young families who move to Jefferson County. Think about the vehicles and equipment to purchase to support police officers and firefighters responding to more emergency calls. Envision the parks new residents will want to relax, exercise and play in.  

Identifying all of the ways county government infrastructure and services might be strained by new development is a major task. But projecting future growth and putting hard-dollar figures to that development impact might be an even greater challenge.

The Jefferson County Commission has been grappling with how—and more recently whether—to update the amount of one-time impact fees developers are charged for the new housing subdivisions, apartment complexes, office buildings and shopping strips they build.

Eighty-five percent of the county’s impact fees pay for school capital projects. Currently, the county has collected about $6.5 million in impact fees held in reserve for public school capital projects.

Other impact fees held in county accounts include $378,000 for parks and recreation capital projects, $175,000 for law enforcement expenditures and $312,00 for general government service projects.  

Impact fees allow existing households and businesses to avoid shouldering new taxes that new development can bring. But to stand on firm legal ground, the county commission needs to base its impact fees on reasonable research and assumptions related to the government’s projected costs of new development.

Impact fees cannot pay for existing levels of government services or operations, such as building maintenance or vehicle replacements.

Setting impact fees either too high or too low have consequences. The fees are inevitably passed along to homebuyers, renters and commercial customers. So fees set too high, in addition to hindering the local economy in general, could raise home prices and apartment rents out of reach for current and prospective county residents.

But impact fees set too low could deprive the government of useful revenue and cause longstanding residents to pay the expenses of newly arriving residents.

Last year, the county commission hired the Bethesda (Md.) consulting firm TischlerBise to review how and whether the county government’s impact fees should be updated. The fees were last adjusted five years ago.

A 93-page study TischlerBise delivered last September that recommends raising impact fees for every new single-family house by $6,700 — to a total of $12,203 — touched off broad skepticism and opposition.

Projecting out over the upcoming decade, the study estimates that the county will have:  

• More than 8,200 residents, increasing to a total of 69,300,

• 2,500 more workers (21,200 total),

• 2,900 new homes (24,100) total)

• and about 600 more apartment units (5,060 total).

The study predicts the school system’s enrollment will rise by nearly 1,300, to total about 10,200 students.

Roger Goodwin, the county’s planning department director, last week, endorsed the calculations in the TischlerBise report, saying he carefully reviewed the figures and estimates with a colleague more than once.

“I believe the math is correct,” he said. “If I had to testify in court as to whether or not I believe the report is correct, my testimony would be that it is.”

However, several residents said the study’s recommendations were based on faulty data and assumptions. Last year, Commissioner Josh Compton was the most outspoken commissioner questioning the study’s data and projections.

Last week, Commissioner Steve Stolipher, calling the study “extremely flawed,” ratcheting up the criticism, offering a motion to have the county commission ask to have its $50,000 consulting fee returned from TischlerBise.

“I’ve always said garbage in, garbage out, and that’s exactly what this report looks like,” he said.

Stolipher pointed to an impact fee study the same firm completed for the county five years ago. That study, he said, had projected the school system would have added 950 more students, but the school system has 127 fewer students since then.

Goodwin pointed out that the commission didn’t have to accept all of the study’s findings to adjust the five-year-old impact fee. He said it wouldn’t matter how fast or slow growth occurs as long as the impact fee defrayed the costs associated with the growth that does occur.

“If there’s less growth, less impact fees,” he said. “More growth, more impact fees.”

But Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson, appearing before the same commission meeting last week to talk about impact fees, urged the commission to take a long-term approach rather than a short-term view in adjusting impact fees. Deciding to cut or eliminate impact fees based on data from a handful of years can be premature, she said.

Gibson said the county commission should continue to collect impact fees even though the county’s public schools have shown an enrollment decline over the past four years.

“You could take three years’ worth of data out of the last 10 and say well that means … we’re never going to grow again,” she said. “If you’ve looked out here around in the county and seeing the housing developments and the businesses that are going up, there’s no way we won’t have growth in the future.”

The commissioners decided to delay any decision over whether to adjust impact fees for another meeting. The commissioners also wanted a county attorney to review their legal options to obtain the return of the county’s consulting fee.

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