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Chatham Coalition objections prevent major impact fee change

By Jeffrey Starkweather
Posted Wednesday, February 9, 2005

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Chatham Coalition objections prevent Bunkey Morgan from pushing through major residential impact fee without citizen input

Objections raised by a spokesperson for the Chatham Coalition helped prevent County Commissioner chair Bunkey Morgan on Monday from pushing through a proposed major change in school impact fees without public notice or a public hearing.

Late last week the Coalition learned that Morgan was intentionally keeping the public in the dark about a proposed major impact fee change, which would raise school impact fees on new residences in the northeastern part of the county, including Pittsboro to $4,000 while at the same time eliminate all such fees in the southwest. Impact fees in the northwestern part of the county, including Siler City, were to be raised to $2,500, while those in the Moncure area would be lowered to $1,400. Currently, the impact fee across the county is unified at $1,500 for each new house constructed.

Morgan secretly informed his fellow commissioners of the proposal last Thursday via e-mail, but did not provide them with a county fiscal study justifying the specific fees until Monday. He also purposely left this issue off the official agenda posted on the county’s web site.

“Whether it is your intention or not, you have slapped fairness and democracy in the face,” Sally Kost, vice chair of the Coalition told the Commissioners. “A major shift in public policy deserves more than a discussion on a Monday morning meeting, where few citizens can attend. How can you even consider raising residential impact fees without advance public notice and meaningful citizen input?”

Morgan’s motion to approve his proposed new impact fee structure died for a lack of a second. His fellow commissioners stated that, based on the objections that Kost raised, they needed to delay consideration of this issue until their February 21 evening meeting in order to allow public notice and input. The Chatham Coalition is a grassroots citizen’s political action committee that helped elect two county commissioners last year in large part on the issue of open and responsive county government.

Morgan claimed that he had been working on this issue for two years and he had consulted many legal experts who assured him his proposed change is allowed by the law... Morgan also said his proposed impact fee for each school district was justified by a fiscal study recently completed by county staff. That report, which Morgan claimed tied specific costs of adding new schools needed in each district, was not made available to the public or to Morgan’s fellow commissioners prior to Monday’s meeting.

“It appears that Chairman Morgan has decided to ignore last year’s overwhelming vote for county commissioner candidates who voiced the need for more open and transparent government,’ stated Jeffrey Starkweather, a local attorney and chair of the Chatham Coalition. “What area of government do taxpayers most want conducted in the open with strong citizen input? What area of government does the appearance of back-room dealings most upset taxpayers and raised suspicions? And what functions of government are citizens most concerned about fairness and the appearance of fairness? Clearly it is taxes and fees. Whose interests did Mr. Morgan think he was representing in attempting to ram through a major increase in taxpayer fees without citizen knowledge or scrutiny?”

During recent debates over the costs and impact of residential development in the county, the commissioners and citizens have expressed a desire to have the fees based on a sliding scale tied to the value of the residence built. Chatham County’s current legislative authorization does not allow the fee to be based on the value of the residence built. Newly elected county commissioners Mike Cross and Patrick Barnes have proposed an alternative system that would allow the county to collect a fee of one percent based on property value as it is sold. This land transfer tax, however, will require legislative approval, which the commissioners had previously agreed to seek. Morgan, indicated that he wanted his motion passed Monday in order to help him make his decision regarding Briar Chapel, which he indicated will be voted on at a special meeting next Tuesday, February 15.

Knowledgeable sources have informed the Coalition that Morgan’s proposed $4,000 fee was picked because this is what the developer’s of Briar Chapel have agreed to pay. The county study shows a maximum fee of $6,754 would be justified, while the Briar Chapel’s economic impact study justified a fee of $8,400.

Although the commissioners agreed to postpone their deliberations for two weeks, they did not agree to open their discussion to public input, let alone a formal public hearing.

“Is this a good idea? To tell the truth, we don’t know,” “ Kost expressed Monday, particularly upon learning that Morgan was relying on a fiscal study that had not been made public. “We cannot know if this is a good idea or not until the factual support for this idea is made public and it is discussed and deliberated openly... All options should be explored and debated. Why was there no attempt to seek citizen input? Why is Chairman Morgan unwilling to hold a public hearing?”

Patrick Barnes, who represents the northeast section of the county most affected by this new proposal, indicated that he needed time to review the proposal, as well as the supportive study that he was seeing for the first time Monday. He stated that he felt citizens also needed time to review this proposal so they could have meaningful input. However, Barnes said his first reaction to the proposed fee of $4,000 was that it was too low, given that the schools appeared to be seeking about a $120 million school construction bond.

The Chatham Coalition has filed a public records request with county government seeking documents supporting this proposal and all correspondence between the commissioners and outside parties concerning this proposal. Similarly, the Coalition is requesting that the commissioners appoint a citizen’s budget advisory board, which would not only provide citizen input on budget matters but also on proposed alternative development fee proposals such as this one proposed by Chairman Morgan, as well as the earlier land transfer tax proposal by Commissioners Cross and Barnes.

“There seems to be a significant irony in Chairman’s Morgan’s proposed substantial increase in impact fees on new residences to pay for schools,” concluded Starkweather. “During the last year Commissioner Morgan and his ‘anything goes’ residential development supporters have been arguing that all these new residential developments, such as Homestead, Briar Chapel, and Booth Mountain, will more than pay for themselves, including school construction. In essence, they have been arguing that this is the county’s only economic development option. But if these residential developments are going to more than pay for themselves, then why do we need to increase school impact fees? Were we being given the truth then or now?”

Related info:
Chatham Coalition
e-mail E-mail this page
print Printer-friendly page
Chatham Coalition objections prevent major impact fee change

Related info:
Chatham Coalition
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