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'Fair' fees could be complicated, consultant says

LAWRENCEVILLE - The simple notion of having newcomers pay for the burden of growth would be very complicated to implement, an expert told an impact fee study committee Wednesday. But he said it wouldn't be hard to work out all the kinks.

Bill Ross, a consultant who has helped about two dozen counties and cities write impact fee ordinances, explained the ins and outs of the fees, which could be charged to developers to pay for upgrades to roads, water and sewer lines, parks, public safety and libraries. The committee was appointed by the Board of Commissioners to recommend whether the fast-growing county should implement impact fees. A recommendation is expected by November.

According to the law, the developers can only be charged enough to pay for the facilities needed to accommodate growth and not the community at large.

"The law is a simple notion: everyone pays their fair share. But it takes pages (of documents) and formulas to figure out what that fair share is," Ross said. "This simple idea ends up being a 100-page report."

Ross said the county has to be able to explain why its formula is fair, as a Cherokee County plan recently went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court.

If the fees are in place, developers could no longer be induced to dedicate right-of-way to road projects or other forms of service. And Ross said the county would likely experience some shortfalls in paying for the projects needed for growth.

At the same time, though, "it ain't hard to do," Ross said. "It's no more difficult to collect and account for impact fees as it is to collect and account for building permits."

Ross said none of the governments he has worked for had to hire more planners, although some did have to hire another person in the accounting office.

Ross did acknowledge that none of the cities in areas that he worked agreed to implement the county's fee structure.

That could be a problem for Gwinnett, the study committee's chairman Michael Sullivan said.

"We're going to struggle with the question of city-county cooperation," he said. "The county's perception is you have too much annexation already. Impact fees sensitize that concern. Ultimately there is potential for conflict."

Duluth Mayor Pro Tem Doug Mundrick, who sits on the committee, said he already hears complaints from citizens that have to pay the full portion of the county tax even though they receive parks and police protection from the city.

Ross said that if cities refuse too cooperate, the county should consider reopening the service delivery strategy, or the agreement under which cities and counties decide which services they provide. Roads, for example, are under the county's domain in most cases, even when they are located within a city.

In his work, Ross said one common concern about impact fees is that it would deter economic development. The issue even caused the Catoosa County Commission to vote against the fees after months of working on determining a fair structure.

Gwinnett officials recently OK'd the use of tax breaks to draw businesses to the area, but Ross said there has been no evidence that impact fees would harm the efforts.