January 12, 2003
Journal Star Editorial
COUNCIL MUST CHOOSE IMPACT FEE ORDINANCE THAT IS FAIR
Much has been said and written about the Dec. 16 meeting of the Lincoln City Council, or more specifically, the council's discussion of the impact fee ordinance. The editorial staff of this paper described the amendments that I and a few of my colleagues introduced as "tried and true tactics" used to snarl the system. Others have suggested that the amendments introduced were designed as a tactic to stall the inevitable. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For several months I have been working with various individuals and organizations throughout the city in an effort to move forward the best ordinance possible. It is most important that the impact fee ordinance that is ultimately voted on be clean, fair and one that will pass the legal scrutiny that is sure to follow if approved. That meant offering a number of amendments for the council to discuss. Twenty-two amendments were initially offered that afternoon by a variety of council members. The amendments that were passed by the council accomplished in part the three objectives mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, the process by which we conduct business as a council was stretched to a near breaking point.
We as the legislative arm of our strong mayoral form of government are regularly under a great deal of pressure from a variety of groups and individuals. All in an attempt to make sure we are properly informed as to the details of the legislation before us. What happened on Dec. 16, however, crossed the line of ethical behavior and proper decorum. For the mayor to pass a note to the council chair suggesting an unscheduled break is a blatant misuse of the office and a total lack of respect for the process for the chair to honor such a request. This request for a break came after a reversal vote on a previously failed amendment on categorical exemptions. Then in an attempt to save face for the mayor with a small number of local developers, an alternate amendment is scratched on a loose piece of paper and introduced for an expected approval. Fortunately, wisdom and common sense prevailed and the vote on the ordinance and further amendments was delayed until mid-January.
It is no secret that I do not support the current impact fee ordinance. It is also no secret that I recognize that impact fees, when adopted fairly and legally, can be a useful tool in infrastructure financing. This whole process, dating back nearly four years, has been a process of manipulation and dissemination of misinformation. We continually hear that impact fees are an effort to "make developers pay their fair share," yet under the current proposed ordinance the developers pay nothing. The burden of financial responsibility rests solely on the shoulders of the homebuilder, the small business. Then to make matters worse, an agreement is reached to exempt nearly $20 million of development from the process.
I have to admit that I am still perplexed by the rationale that impact fee proponents continue to voice: New development needs to pay for itself. That the burden of financial responsibility for roads, water and sewer lines should rest only on the shoulders of new development. What these narrow-sighted individuals fail to realize is that the practice of developers paying for all streets, utilities, street trees and lights within a new development is relatively new in Lincoln's one hundred plus year history. When the older neighborhoods were established, the city, the taxpayers, shouldered the cost of paving and other improvements. What we are talking about here is only the off-site improvements near or surrounding a development, such as the addition of a turn lane, the widening of a road, the installation of a traffic signal. Currently these off-site improvements are the costs negotiated between a developer and the city. These are roads and traffic signals that all of us use on our way to work, to worship, to school, to shop. Why then, should a single homebuilder now be burdened with the financial responsibility of these improvements that we all use?
Many impact fee proponents have tried to make this a rich vs. poor issue. Many of the e-mails and letters I received referred to the fictitious $400,000 home not paying their fair share. Do they not realize that the owners of that home pay double the property tax of a $200,000 home? Do they receive twice the city benefits of the lower valued home? Of course not, so who is really paying their fair share? The fact is we are all in one way or another paying our fair share as Lincolnites have for more than 100 years.
The fact is, this entire process was designed to divide the community, to pit older neighborhoods against the development and construction industries. No good can come for that type of divisive action. An issue of this magnitude should not be rushed for the sole purpose of political gain.
A group of impact fee opponents are currently running a radio advertisement with the final statement made, that in my opinion, so aptly sums up the underlying theme that so many have forgotten, "Lincoln belongs to all of us."