County Councilman Steve McKay is back at work on a proposal that would get more money for much-needed school construction in the county. Good for him.
The pandemic has delayed McKay’s plans, which were first unveiled in 2019, but now he is expected to revive the issue in the new year.
His legislation would provide for a big increase in the school construction and mitigation fees paid by developers who want to build in areas where schools are above 100 percent capacity, the definition of crowding under Frederick County’s ordinances.
In 2018, the County Council passed legislation introduced by its then-President Bud Otis that increased the school construction fees, basing them on data from the state’s annual School Construction Cost Index. Otis’ ordinance added 2 percent to the school construction fees but limited maximum annual increases to 6 percent.
Councilman Jerry Donald was one of two “no” votes in a 5-2 vote on that legislation, arguing the fee increase did not go far enough.
Democrat Donald and Republican McKay — bipartisan buddies — have worked together on other issues, most recently the charter changes approved by voters in November to amend the method for filling vacancies in county elective offices.
But Donald said he is letting McKay take the lead on the school construction fees bill. They had previously cooperated on an impact fees bill passed by the council 6-0 in April 2019. Developers pay impact fees to fund schools and libraries, no matter the capacity situation.
Janice Spiegel, education liaison for County Executive Jan Gardner, is currently working with Budget Director Kelly Weaver on a report to the County Council that will update on school construction cost situation and show where the school mitigation fees should be.
According to the 2020 report, published at the beginning of the year, mitigation fees for a single detached family home were $4,444 per unit, Spiegel said. But according to more recent calculations using the state’s School Construction Cost index, the fee would be $7,606.
Despite the economic dislocation of the pandemic, home sales have continued to be strong in Frederick County. It is clear that developers could easily absorb an increase in the mitigation fee, which is generally passed on to the homebuyer. Prices have been rising here, so adding a few thousand dollars to the price of a new home is not going to hurt the market.
McKay and Donald proposed a bill last year to raise the fees in line with the state index, but other council members balked at such a large increase. They pulled the proposal, planning instead to phase in the increases over two or three years.
Now, however, McKay said that since the housing market was booming in 2020 and the developers avoided the first year of any additional costs, he was “leaning” toward increasing the fees immediately.
Opponents of fee increase in the building industry argue that higher fees hurt the county’s goal of keeping housing affordable. McKay disputed that.
“The homes that we’re talking about, [where] the developers owe this fee, are not affordable home products,” McKay told News-Post reporter Steve Bohnel. “They’re new home products that are selling at the high end of the market.”
We agree. The need for more money for school construction outweighs the minimal impact on new home prices in the fastest growing areas.
We would encourage Donald and McKay to join forces once again to push for the school funding bill.