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Sen. Regier’s impact fee bill ill-advised

by Rebecca Norton
| January 19, 2023 12:00 AM

Years ago I was at a state sponsored training on ethics and the man sitting next to me (who had a fun, but jaundiced sense of humor after being involved in politics for decades) told me “the thing about lawsuits is that one side is always wrong.”

Another thing that I have learned since is that there are two things public officials are not able to disclose or discuss publicly: the details of a current, unsettled lawsuit (to avoid giving the opponent of the city the advantage) and personnel issues (to protect the rights of our employees to due process).

So given all of that I would still like to say publicly that I sat in on a legislative hearing Jan. 16 remotely for Senate Bill 142, which is entitled “An Act Revising Local Government Impact Fee Laws Requiring the Community Development Division of the Department of Commerce to Oversee the Collection and Administration of Impact Fees.”

It goes on to require that independent firms prepare service area reports (they already do — we have hired outside consultants since the right to receive impact fees was established by law in 2007, as do all other cities in Montana that use impact fees to pay for development’s impact on utilities).

It adds refunding of impact fees (we already do this if there are errors identified that can be confirmed by inspection and verification after a build-out and a citizen can appeal an impact fee through the City Council); amends requirements for public facility projects and impact fee collection (taking the approval of fee increases away from the local level — where city councils or county commissions approve the final fee schedule after the audit and review is done by our hired consultants and our Impact Fee Committee, as well as the right to grant an appeal for impact fees, and gives these fiduciary responsibilities to the state (why?); and allows proceedings to be brought against a government entity (that is already a possibility — we do get sued and our attorney is part of our staff to help us navigate those cases).

But this bill goes further by making the legal fees for a case brought against a city to be paid for by the impact fees collected and sent to the state, so taxpayer dollars are being used for a civil lawsuit; then allowing the administrative fee (5% of impact fees) to be given to the state vs. local staff to pay for administrative time to ensure that the impact fee program is operational; and then greatly reducing the timelines for getting big capital projects done before money is refunded to the property owner, which realistically should be much longer given construction costs and land values and how long it takes to accumulate enough money to complete capital improvement projects.

SB 142 is carried by our own Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, who refused to cooperate with or communicate with our city manager, lobbyist, or anyone in the Whitefish governing body before writing this bill.

Whitefish is the only city in Sen. Regier’s jurisdiction and he is targeting one of the only means we have to have growth pay for itself. If this bill is passed into law it could mean that the standards of compliance are so unrealistic that we do away with impact fees, meaning the citizens of Whitefish will be paying more in taxes to pay for new development.

It’s a very poorly written, unnecessary, and disappointing attempt to take away local control as well.

Please write to the Senate Local Government Committee at mt.leg.gov to tell them no on SB142. And if you see our Senator, because those of us elected to govern locally have not, please tell him no to raising your taxes and eliminating impact fees as well.

Make development pay for itself by keeping this important program intact as is. NO to SB142!

Rebecca Norton is a Whitefish City Councilor.

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