Impact Fee Debate Raises Vexing Issue

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The debate about whether to give a new restaurant a break on its water impact fees left us feeling ever so slightly schizophrenic.

That’s because we don’t like impact fees.

But if you’re going to impose them, at least be fair.

Moreover, do we really want the town council to slap down local charities but wave through new businesses?

The town council last week waived its own ordinance to give a break to a new restaurant, but in recent months has repeatedly rejected pleas for a break in fees from groups that have staged horse shows for years, provided a safe space for struggling kids to play or build low-income housing.

The immediate issue before the council centered on whether to charge interest on the deferral of $100,000 in water impact fees charged to a new restaurant.

That’s right: $100,000: Count the zeros.

Now, back when the town imposed huge water impact fees along with annual limits on building permits, it made a certain precarious sense. Well levels were plunging as building boomed. So Payson imposed a $7,500-per-unit impact fee and even heavier fees on businesses. The town earmarked the money for the $30 million Blue Ridge pipeline, which seemed the only way to provide water for those new homes and businesses.

The $7,500-per-unit water fee constitutes only half of the per-unit fees imposed on new construction — including about $5,000 charged by the separate, but cash-swollen Northern Gila County Sanitary District.

Then the economy crashed — along with most of the Rim Country construction firms. Last fall, the council adopted an ordinance allowing builders to spread their impact fee payments over a decade. That ordinance specified the town would charge interest on the deferred fees.

A request from a new restaurant for an interest-free conversion of its $100,000 fee into monthly payments over next decade sparked last week’s discussion.

Councilors Ed Blair and Fred Carpenter insisted the town ought to follow the terms of its just-adopted ordinance. They said it didn’t seem fair to give a new restaurant a break so it could come in and compete with existing, struggling restaurants.

We agree with Blair and Carpenter up to a point: The town ought to follow its own ordinances. If the town wants to extend fees interest free, put that in the ordinance.

Then again, we don’t think the town should manipulate its fees to limit business competition.

On the whole, we’d like to see the town and the sanitation district reduce impact fees dramatically — once it’s clear we can cover the cost of the Blue Ridge pipeline. These crushing fees deter development to the detriment of the whole community. But in the meantime, the council shouldn’t be so quick to placate a new restaurant while denying a pocket-change break in fees for local charities.

New science class offers hope

The Payson School District’s decision to launch a demanding, project-based series of science and technology courses offers a bright gleam of sunlit hope through the rumbling thunderheads.

The series of four courses will prepare students for high-tech careers in engineering and other fields while providing hands-on proof that math matters.

Already, 30 eighth-graders have signed up for the launch of this bold experiment — proof that administrators and teachers must not underestimate the ambitions of the district’s students and parents.

The program grew from the dedicated, creative efforts of a parents’ group that has been pushing hard for improvements in the district’s under-funded, but vital programs for gifted and talented students.

District administrators had the insight and grace to make allies of these parents as the discussion evolved from launching a science charter school to taking advantage of a national curriculum offering science and technology-based courses. The classes will rely on the teamwork of students laboring to create solutions to real-world problems. This approach engages students emotionally and creatively, helping them understand the real-world applications of math and science.

Fortunately, middle school technology teacher Marlene Armstrong signed on to spearhead the program, making it possible to launch it in the fall, even in the face of the district’s layoffs of classroom teachers.

Make no mistake, the nation will pay a heavy price economically for the failure of lawmakers, parents and educators to prepare the next generation of scientists, doctors and engineers. Our children have fallen well behind our key competitors when it comes to learning math and science, with Arizona scoring especially poorly on national tests of science and math proficiency.

So we congratulate the district and the students who have signed up already, determined to work hard to make their mark in a world that needs them more than we know.

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