Sharing the pain of school growth

What’s the Snoqualmie City Council going to do about school impact fees? Valley council members weigh in this month on the latest set of fees, which are levied annually by school districts and collected by cities and the county to provide funds for school growth. Fees are based on the premise that the more houses are built, the more potential schoolchildren that districts will have to house and educate.

Typically, approval is pretty cut and dried, but this time around, the decision is complicated by the size of the increase: more than $5,000 for a single family residence in the Snoqualmie Valley School District.

While North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing seems to be standing by the school district’s numbers, Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson publicly questioned whether the hike will put a damper on local growth. His view is understandable—growth was Snoqualmie’s economic engine in the past decade, when the city was one of the fastest growing places in the state and real estate excise tax made up a significant chunk of revenues. Larson’s argument is that steeper development costs may freeze a cool economy.

Impact fee amounts have yo-yo’ed considerably over the past few years. Fee calculation has nothing to do with home prices or the economy, but are based on the district’s facility needs minus tax credits and matching funds in a given year. Two years ago, developers paid nothing because failed bonds meant there were no big projects in the pipeline; tax credits took care of the bottom line. Fees are bigger now because there was no state match this year.

Impact fees are at the heart of a newcomers-versus-longtimers debate that seems to come up at every bond election. I’ve heard my share of comments from longtime locals who would rather see home growth pay for school growth than dig into their wallets to house the growing number of students.

This issue is clearly a balancing act. Valley residents have long stepped up to help other folks’ children with their hard-earned tax dollars, but failed bonds in 2007 and 2008 have shown that their generosity has limits.

If Snoqualmie does delay impact fee collection, it may open the door to a burst of economic activity by developers eager to get in before bond passage. That’s good for Snoqualmie. But I can surmise the upset reaction of folks developing in neighboring North Bend or King County, who have to carry a bigger growth burden while their neighbors’ homes slide in under last year’s rate. Even as economic reasons seem a strong justification, I’ve heard the saying that growth should pay for itself enough to feel a mite uneasy about any new deal.

Let’s remember that an $8,100 impact fee is about 2.7 percent of the cost of a $300,000 house. If that amount truly is a deal-breaker, maybe it’ll push growth to Carnation, where Riverview School District’s impact fee is $2,500 lower than the Upper Valley schools. I wouldn’t bet on it, if only for the timing—this contentious fee amount could be something completely different by this time next year.

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