Council gains power to impose impact fee

Bill signed by Ehrlich applies to new homes

May 16, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has signed a bill giving the Harford County Council the authority to impose an impact fee on new homes to help pay for school construction.

The signing Tuesday morning was without fanfare.

It was bittersweet for most council members, who had hoped for considerably broader authority to address what they see as a crisis in the county's public school system.

The bill signed by the governor gives the council the authority to impose an impact fee of up to $10,000 on new homes built in the county to pay for school construction and to make repairs to existing schools.

"It was not even close to what we asked for," said Robert S. Wagner, a Republican and president of the County Council.

"This is not even going to begin solving our problem," Wagner said.

"It is just a tiny piece of the puzzle. It only impacts one part of the market -- new homes."

The council had asked the General Assembly for the authority to impose several revenue sources to pay for school improvements. They included the impact fee and an excise tax on the purchase of new and existing homes.

The council also wanted to be able to raise the transfer tax on homes from 1 percent to 1.5 percent and to have the authority to repeal the $30,000 transfer tax exemption for owner-occupied residences.

Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat and a leader in the council's efforts to reduce crowding in schools, said he was disappointed with the limited authority granted by the county's legislative delegation.

He has said previously that it amounted to the delegation's turning its back on the needs of county schoolchildren.

Parents complained to council members last year that some schools had 20 percent -- and in some cases, more than 25 percent -- more students than they were designed to handle.

They said such crowding jeopardized the safety of their children and was not conducive to learning.

Wagner wanted the burden of paying for schools to be shared by a greater portion of the county's population. He said a transfer tax would have forced families with school-age children moving into existing homes to help pay the bill for school construction.

"It would have been more fair to spread the cost around," he said.

Wagner said that additional revenue sources would have also helped in addressing the county's budget pinch.

"If we had a recordation tax," Wagner said, "it would help pay for a teachers pay raise."

He said that teachers have negotiated a 3 percent raise but that there is not enough money in the budget for even a 1 percent raise.

The impact fee legislation becomes effective June 1, according to Del. Barry Glassman, a Republican and chairman of the Harford County legislative delegation.

Glassman said the legislation allows the county to either impose a flat fee or to vary the fee from district to district.

A work group consisting of members of the county administration and the council has been formed to draft the impact fee, which would need council approval.

Nancy Giorno, the county's deputy attorney, said the group will have its first meeting in the next two weeks. She said the group would look at programs established by other counties in drafting legislation that it will submit to the council.

Wagner said he does not expect a bill before the council before September or October. He said he wants that bill reviewed by an outside consultant and for it to be able to withstand a court challenge by the homebuilding industry.

Despite his disappointment in the authority given to it by the county's legislative delegation, Wagner said he does not expect the council to seek additional power next year.

"I would be surprised if it would be worth the trouble," he said. "This was the year to get what we wanted. Next year is getting too close to the election schedule, and lawmakers are shy about things like this when it gets close to elections."

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