By Chris Hendrickson, Monitor
Developers will get a break after all on the fees they pay to schools to offset the cost of the additional students they bring to the district, just not in 2014.
On Dec. 10, the ordinance which would have amended the Monroe Municipal Code designating the mitigation fee discount amount died due to a tie vote. Three council members were in favor of maintaining the current 25 percent discount; three council members sought to increase the discount to 50 percent.
The mayor was disallowed from breaking the tie per Washington State Law prohibiting him from voting on an ordinance.
That might have closed the matter for the next two years, as that is the soonest the council would typically reopen the issue.
But during discussion city staff was directed to bring back an alternative to the recommended motion which maintained the 25 percent discount for now, with an opportunity for council to revisit the issue sooner than the two-year timeframe allotment outlined in the original ordinance.
It is typical for municipalities to charge mitigation fees to developers as a method of offsetting the growth-related strain placed on existing city resources. In Monroe, parks, streets and schools all receive funding through mitigation fees. School mitigation fee amounts are calculated based on a complex mathematic formula developed by Snohomish County.
To ease the burden on developers, the fees have been historically discounted 50 percent in an effort to promote and encourage residential development. Due to a need to accommodate a rapidly growing school population, Monroe decreased the amount of the discount in 2002 to 25 percent, which enabled them to be able to collect 75 percent of the fee.
Now the city has been advocating for an increase in the discount, returning it to 50 percent. The school board is opposed; nearly all Monroe schools are at capacity and the district is currently using 36 portables with an average of 25 desks in each to accommodate the current population.
Tuesday, city staff presented a new alternative motion to maintain the 25 percent discount for 2014, automatically shifting it up to 50 percent in 2015.
Councilmember Williams questioned the way the code was written.
“It looks like it’s worded incorrectly,” said Williams.
The code discussed the fee amounts in fractions rather than percentages, which caused issues with its clarity.
Cudaback expressed concern over the automatic increase to 50 percent.
She recalled the discussion from Dec. 10 as having provided a direction for staff to remove the two-year time frame stipulation, enabling council to maintain the 25 percent discount and reexamine the amount in a year if they wished.
“I’m not going to vote on this tonight; to increase it to 50 percent next year no matter what,” said Cudaback. “What I would vote on tonight would be to keep it at 25 and then have the option to look at it next year and possibly increase it there.”
“I thought that was the direction we talked about; that was my intent,” she continued.
Councilmember Gamble also supported maintaining the 25 percent discount and was against an automatic increase. He explained that as a member of the community, he understands that school enrollment is up, and that development is also on the rise, even with the lesser, 25 percent discount.
Councilmember Williams revisited the issue of complying with the Washington State RCWs outlining school mitigation fees. He had explained on Dec. 10 that the school district, to him, does not seem to be in compliance with state law that stipulates mitigation fees must not solely fund a school district’s capital facilities budget.
Being as the district has been putting nearly all mitigation fee funding towards the purchase of portables and has not sought a capital facilities bond since 2010, Williams argued that they are using the fees to fund nearly 100 percent of their capital expenditures.
“The RCW clearly says that what’s happening today is not the intent of mitigation fees,” said Williams.
He further acknowledged the school district’s need to seek out additional funding by considering a capital facilities bond in an effort to make their capital budget more robust.
City attorney Lell weighed in on the concern over not meeting the expectations outlined in the state RCW.
“The relevant plan cannot establish the impact fees as the sole means of funding the system improvements needed to serve new development,” said Lell. “It doesn’t define any numeric threshold beyond that. Presumably, a 99 percent impact fee funded program would pass legal muster.”
“The statute just says it can’t be the only source,” Lell continued.
The school district attempted to obtain a capital bond in 2010, a measure which was voted down. They have recently obtained some budgetary relief through a timber sale and are presently engaged in a technology levy.
Cudaback presented council with a report on the district’s recent attempts at levy and bond funding which include two failed attempts at a capitol facilities bond in 2010, a current technology levy, successful maintenance and operation levies in 2012 and 2008, and a transportation levy in 2010 which passed.
She again stated that she would not be voting in favor of a motion which included an automatic increase.
“I don’t think that was the intent of what we were talking about last week,” said Cudaback.
Council did not elect to wave council rules, but voted on the measure as a first reading. The motion passed, 5 to 2, with Cudaback and Gamble dissenting.
The school district expressed disappointment with the city council’s decision.
“We appreciated their efforts to do what they thought was important which was to allow the schools to adjust,” said Rosemary O’Neil, spokesperson for the district. “However, it’s not a question of adjusting; it’s a question of adequate resources, and with less resources, when growth comes – and it will come – we will still have to find ways to accommodate additional students without the additional resources.”