Impact fee faces criticism

Charge raised less money than expected

figures revealed as new budget unveiled


Envisioned as an important new revenue stream when it was approved by the County Council last year, the impact fee is shaping up to be a dud.

The money generated by the fee - collected when new homes are built - goes toward school construction, including the $60 million Patterson Mill middle and high school complex.

Projections showed the fee, which is levied when building permits are obtained, generating as much as $11 million per year. But only about $2.8 million came in, according to figures released by the county government last week. Many are questioning the effectiveness of the fee, which was controversial from the start.

"If this was a decision made to help solve capital projects and is not producing the revenue needed, there's a conversation that needs to continue between state delegation and the different stakeholders," said schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas. "We're all players in this."

The figures were published last week as County Executive David R. Craig unveiled his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. The $556 million budget includes $189 million for the county school system, whose budget was fully funded last year. While his proposal includes about $10 million less than the system is seeking, Craig said this year's budget fulfills the county's two-year commitment to pay raises for teachers.

It also includes $1.3 million toward intervention programs to help struggling schools meet federal requirements of No Child Left Behind.

"We knew we had a wonderful one-time event last year, and we weren't surprised not to have that happen again this year," said Haas. She applauded the salary increase for teachers but said the budget doesn't include money for many "priority" projects, including teaching positions and infrastructure improvements.

Under the spending plan, the Harford Sheriff's Office would see one of the largest increases among county departments in the $410 million general fund. The Sheriff's $51.5 million budget includes money to hire 20 deputies, 11 correctional officers, a sex offender verification investigator and a handful of civilian support staffers.

"I'm extremely pleased with the county executive for presenting a workable plan to get the personnel I needed," said Sheriff R. Thomas Golding.

All eligible county employees would receive a merit step increase and a 3 percent cost of living adjustment to their paychecks.

In preparation for thousands of jobs at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Craig included two new positions that would help attract prospective military contractors and assist them in securing property.

Among the projects in the $183 million capital budget are engineering and design funds for an addition to Aberdeen High School and a new Edgewood High School. Last year, $4 million was earmarked for a new Bel Air High, a project that will be bid out this month.

Little of that capital money came from the impact fee, which tacks on $8,000 to the cost of building a home. In addition to the impact fee, the council asked the General Assembly last year for the authority to boost the transfer tax on homes from 1 percent to 1.5 percent, an excise tax on purchases of new and previously owned homes and an increase in the recordation tax.

The county delegation limited the council to the impact fee, which irritated some officials.

"With an impact fee, not only are you not going to raise the kind of money you thought you would, but it eventually fades away. Eventually you'll have build-out," said Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat from Joppatowne who is opposed to the impact fee.

But Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who represents portions of Harford and Cecil counties, said all the proposed changes were "a mistake," made only to appease the county.

"One of the problems with government is we tend to spend what we bring in - you want more so you can spend people's money," she said. "It would be nice if we could give some taxpayers their money back."

Craig, who was a member of the General Assembly in the 1990s, said the impact fee should be "abolished" and the recordation tax increased. He said the change would be the most fair and equitable way to spread costs.

Until then, the county seems poised to forward-fund many of its most-needed capital projects in hopes of recouping some of the costs from the state later, a strategy that other counties have employed with mixed results.

"We have to do it," he said. "These are our kids, and delaying projects to better their education doesn't make sense. We have to be willing to take [new construction projects] on, and hope we're treated fairly and equitably at the state level."

Proposed new jobs

County Executive David R. Craig's $556 million proposed budget contains funding for various new positions across the county. Among them are:

Fifty-one teaching positions, plus a principal and secretary for Patterson Mill middle and high schools and staff to help struggling schools meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Forty positions for the Harford County Sheriff's Office, including 20 deputies, 11 correctional officers and a sex offender verification investigator.

Three emergency service dispatchers.

Two staffers - one in economic development, one in the new property management division - who would focus on BRAC-related contractors.

Additional staff for the Parks & Recreation Department.

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