Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

TOP STORY > >Cabot ends fees it put on builders of houses

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader senior staff writer

Cabot’s impact fee on new construction, which last year brought in $208,000, has been repealed.

The city council Monday night voted 7-1 to do away with the 2006 ordinance imposing the fee on new houses and commercial buildings, which cost builders $1,272 on a 3,000-4,000-square-foot house.

If the fee had been extended, it would have nearly doubled this month.

A committee charged with determining whether the impact fee had contributed to the decline in construction in Cabot had recommended that the fee double this month as scheduled and remain at that level for 24 months, possibly until another source of income for the city was in place.

Alderman Teri Miessner, who chaired the committee, provided the lone vote against repealing the fee.

“Apparently we wasted our time meeting because apparently the intent of the council was to remove it anyway,” Miessner said.

City Attorney Jim Taylor had prepared an ordinance to freeze the impact fee at the second scheduled level as recommended by the committee, but that ordinance was not introduced. Instead, Alderman Tom Armstrong, who voted against the fee in 2006, made the motion to repeal it. That motion was seconded by Alderman Becky Lemaster, who had called the impact fee an unfair tax on the city’s struggling building industry.

Taylor had also drafted the ordinance repealing the impact fee.

Mayor Eddie Joe Williams said there was nothing in the new ordinance that would prevent the council from imposing the fee at a later date if necessary. During the year the fee was in place, the city had collected $75,000 toward the new fire station that is needed to hold down the cost of residential and commercial insurance premiums.

Williams said the city’s finances have improved since the council passed the impact fee. Voters passed a one-cent sales tax that built a much-needed wastewater treatment plant, helped pay for the animal shelter, the community center and the railroad overpass now under construction.

Layoffs last year in all city departments have kept salaries down, but the city has no revenue source at this time that will pay the $1.5 million needed to build a fire station or the $1 million needed to equip it, the mayor said.

Several builders and developers attended the council meeting. Bill O’Brien, a realtor and developer who served on Miessner’s impact fee committee spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, saying the closing of one lumber yard (84 Lumber) in the city and the layoff of workers at another (Ridout) are evidence that the building industry is struggling.

“Thank you for relieving the burden,” he said.

Information available at Cabot Public Works shows that residential construction is down, but it started going down before the impact fee went into effect in November 2006.

Two years earlier, 2004, was the boom year for home construction in Cabot. Building permits for 500 houses were issued that year, compared to 288 in 2002, 374 in 2003, 419 in 2005, 400 in 2006 and 183 in 2007, which was after the impact fee was passed.

However, of the 400 permits issued in 2006, 122 were in November, just before collection of the impact fee was started, for houses that would be built in 2007.

Although residential construction has slowed, commercial, which increases the city’s tax base, is on the rise. Nine commercial permits were issued in 2002, 25 in 2003, 20 in 2004 (the boom year for residential), 60 in 2005, 58 in 2006 and 67 in 2007.

In other business, the council passed an ordinance 7-1 banning the sale of novelty lighters.

Lieutenant Mark Shoemaker, from the North Little Rock Fire Department, spoke for the ban. Two states, Maine and Tennessee, have banned the lighters and he is working on a state-wide ban in Arkansas.

The reporting system for fires has only recently been updated to include novelty lighters, so hard data is not available.

However, it is known that two boys died last year in Russellville after starting a fire with a novelty lighter shaped like a motorcycle.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Shoemaker said, showing the council a croaking frog with a flame coming from its head. “They look like toys.”

Lemaster argued that government shouldn’t regulate what citizens can or cannot do.

“Commerce will take care of it,” Lemaster said. “If they are a bad idea, people will quit buying them.” Alderman Ken Williams countered that crack cocaine is a bad idea but people still buy it.

Alderman Eddie Cook said he also is opposed to “over-governmenting” but he voted with the majority to ban the lighters.

The council also passed an ordinance allowing RVs and motor homes in R-1 zones as temporary housing for tornado victims.

The ordinance expires in six months. Anyone still living in temporary quarters after the ordinance expires will face misdemeanor charges and fines of $100 a day.