Dover legislators discuss fees to aid schools

Sussex County Council would have the power to charge developers a fee to help pay for new schools if legislators in Dover approve a state bill introduced last week. House Bill 118 is enabling legislation that would allow county officials to attach an additional fee to building permits — monies that would be used to cover the local share of capital building projects in county school districts.

Officials in the state’s other two counties have approved similar measures but such an ordinance would face opposition in Georgetown.

“It will be discussed, (but) I won’t support it,” said Dale Dukes (D-1st), president of Sussex County Council. “If the General Assembly is concerned about the lack of revenue — I’m not saying I support it, but the most fair tax you can have is a sales tax. Everybody shares; everybody pays it.”

Dukes called schools the “state’s responsibility,” and argued that another fee on building would further “stymie” an industry plagued by job loss and lack of business after a downturn in real estate sales last year.

“The ‘sky-is-falling-in’ argument just doesn’t hold up,” said Councilman George Cole (R-4th). “Smart people will look at this and not find it a hurdle. They will just fit it into their bottom line. We seemed to have turned a deaf ear by saying it’s a state problem. It’s our problem here.”

HB 118 would allow county officials to charge an extra 1.25 percent extra on building permits exceeding $30,000 in construction value to benefit state-supported school capital building plans. The bill would also allow the county to add an additional .5 percent for fire companies and farmland preservation. On a $300,000 home-building project, the school district fee would generate $3,750.

County and local school district officials have expressed concern about how the money would be collected. They have also wondered if funds generated in a certain area would be used in that area’s local school district instead of potentially being redirected somewhere else in the county. In particular, Indian River has felt pressure in recent years as residents of neighboring school districts have flocked to it for preferred schools, programs and school locations.

The Kent County ordinance, which would likely be similar to any approved in Sussex, charges a fee to any new building project and the funds collected are saved for projects in the district that building impacts. That could be a mixed blessing for Indian River officials but at least guarantee that booming development inside the district would help offset its impacts.

County officials handle money raised through the fee in Kent County. But State officials handle money raised from an ordinance in New Castle, where a fee is only charged to projects that force nearby schools to exceed capacity. New Castle’s fee has been criticized by officials in Sussex for not being successful in raising enough money to provide any substantial support for the county’s schools.

While a Sussex ordinance could provide more help — still not enough for Dukes to be interested, he said — it could still come a bit too late for many Indian River residents.

Residents in the school district have approved more than $90 million in construction and renovation projects through three referendums in the past decades. With that money, Indian River officials have built new Sussex Central and Indian River high schools and plan to renovate every other district building.