by Sallie Gillie
– Monroe Monitor –
The Monroe city council is fast-tracking its deliberations on lowering school impact mitigation fees, an issue that drew criticism from residents who went before the Monroe Planning Commission last week.
Planning commissioners met Sept. 24 to take their first look at the proposal to lower school impact fees, those fees paid by builders for new homes constructed in the city. The proposal being considered by the commission also includes amending the city’s comprehensive plan so language relating to mitigation fees isn’t tied into that long-range planning document.
A commission recommendation on the matter could happen as early as Oct. 15, the same day as a public hearing on mitigation fees and the plan amendment is scheduled.
This week, school mitigation fees were also on the city council’s Oct. 2 agenda, but that action was only to bring the current fee discount up to date, a housekeeping detail which had to happen before the city council can go ahead with future impact fee changes.
Comprehensive Plan changes are usually approved once a year, in July, but the city council can pass amendments out of this cycle when those amendments concern capital facilities plans. The council is now in the process of adopting the updated 2012-2017 capital facilities plans for the Monroe and Snohomish School Districts, each of which have students who live within the city limits.
The city’s proposal has two main objectives. The first is to reduce school impact fees in Monroe by an additional 25 percent, putting them on par with rates in unincorporated Snohomish County and the Snohomish School District.
The second is to remove the mitigation fee language that has been embedded into the city’s comprehensive plan since 2007, effectively bringing control of the impact fees back into the administrative jurisdiction of the city.
Under Monroe’s current school impact discount of 25 percent, builders of new residential housing within the city limits would pay $2,976 in school impact fees for single family homes, and $4,800 in impact fees for multi-family apartments or townhouses. Those fees are paid to the school district to mitigate the impacts of adding new students to the district.
If the 50 percent discount fee is adopted by the city, that fee will drop to $1,984 for single family homes and $3,172 for multi-plexes.
Monroe Economic Development Director Jeff Sax said that lowering school impact fees and making Monroe competitive with other areas of the county would encourage builders to come here, bringing the possibility of new construction jobs which could have a positive impact on the city’s current 10 percent unemployment rate. He reported that the city currently has roughly 260 lots that are somewhere in the application process, though actual construction on some of them would not happen until 2014 or 2015.
Sax added that reducing school impact mitigation fees now would not have the impact it would have had back in 2002, when impact fees brought in more than $900,000 in revenue to the school district.
“In the last few years the average school impact fees collected have been around $40,000,” he said.
“New construction does quite a few things for the community; it brings in new people, people coming here to spend their dollars,” said Sax. “It increases the overall tax base, it brings in real estate excise tax for sales transactions, sales tax from construction of homes if the material is delivered here.”
Sax said that while the school district doesn’t benefit from receiving less impact fees, “the upside to the school district is the next time they pass a levy, the money gets spread out over a greater tax base, and the assessed value of the city is higher, and the levy rate of the individual taxpayers is lower.”
He added that each new student who comes to the school district is supported by state-allocated funds that go toward operations such as teachers and textbooks.
However, Monroe residents who attended last Monday’s Planning Commission meeting voiced concerns about not only lowering fees, but changing the city’s comprehensive plan.
Debra Kolrud, a former Monroe School Board member, urged the planning commissioners to look at the newly updated school district’s capital facilities plan to see the history of what mitigation fees have done. She said that if the reduced fees are adopted, impact fees will be about half what they were in 2004.
Recently, she said, impact fees have been used to buy portables for Hidden River Elementary School and Monroe High School.
“The mitigation fees are important; without them the district is forced to go to the taxpayers for money,” Kolrud said.
Ralph Yingling, Director of Facilities for the Monroe School District, was at the Sept. 24 Planning Commission meeting to answer questions about the capital facilities plan.
When asked about the impacts of reducing mitigation fees to the school district, Yingling said, “Any time you receive less money you will see an impact. The general downturn in the economy for everybody has impacted fees to the school district from the county and the city,” he said.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do any building because we have not been able to pass a bond issue,” he added. “Mitigation fees can only be used for capital facilities, whether it be land, buildings or sometimes portables. We haven’t had any of those projects available at this point.”
According to the 2012 – 2017 Monroe School District Capital Facilities Plan, growth is occurring throughout the district, most of it within and north of the city of Monroe. The plan states, “Even with the new classroom space added in 2005, the high school will continue to be at capacity in the short term.”
Longtime Monroe resident Meredith Mechling also spoke to the commission on her concerns about taking the language regarding school impact fees out of the city’s comprehensive plan, a document she said is “supposed to be the heart and soul of the community. It tells us where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re going.”
The proposed deletions, she said, “are striking out the parts that show the decision-making process that has gone on before. The proposal before you edits out the past history. I guess whoever wrote this doesn’t want the public to know that at one time we had a city council that cared enough about our community, including the education of our kids, to require that developers paid more of their fair share.”
Meredith asked, “So what if Snohomish has lower fees? Why should Monroe be forced to give more to the developers, just because Snohomish has done so?”
Vickie Mullen, a local merchant, agreed. She told the commission she was going to be requesting that Snohomish County raise its mitigation fees.
“My concern is the process, why there is such a rush for this.” Mullen said she had been trying to get a handle on the process, and was relying on the city’s website for information. “The agenda changed from Friday to today,” she said. “Then today, two hours before the meeting, out comes a 16-page red-lined ordinance and a new agenda.”
“I’m totally against things coming out of the comp plan and put in the legislative arena,” said Mullen. “I think it was done so in the past because Monroe has such a history of problems when they put things in the legislative arena; things get changed too quickly. I like things to be in the comp plan because people can rely on what’s going to be charged.”
The Planning Commission directed the city staff to provide additional background information about the rationale for lowering mitigation fees. The commission will continue deliberations following a public hearing scheduled for Oct. 15, 7 p.m. at the Monroe City Council chambers.