Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Bowie) says there is a simple way the county can get more money to help fix overcrowded schools: Charge developers in the county a flat fee.
Forget formulas and student enrollment projections. Just hit up the builders equally for each house they build.
Never mind whether they are luxury homes or more simple abodes. Hubbard wants to find a way to make builders pay their fair share of selling homes to people with children who likely will attend public school. He is drafting legislation that would require developers to pay a flat fee of at least $5,000 for every new home or apartment built in the county.
But hold up, says County Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Croom): A flat fee might encourage more growth and that could still lead to overcrowded schools.
Besides, Estepp points out, there is already a surcharge on builders to accommodate any new students who might be added to the school system as a result of new home construction. Granted, to figure out the schedule of fees you have to be a nuclear physicist with a PhD in mathematics.
As it stands now, builders are required to pay $2,500 per new home or apartment unit.
However, if a construction project causes a school's enrollment to exceed 105 percent of capacity, the builder faces an additional charge, ranging from $9,000 to $12,000, depending on projections of overcrowding in the elementary, middle or high school. If the project is expected to push the school's enrollment to 130 percent of capacity, the builder can't build for four years or until the overcrowded school isn't overcrowded anymore.
Got all that?
Wait, there's more.
County lawyers believe that state law hampers the county's attempt to collect extra fees from builders if their projects overcrowd the schools. This means less money for county coffers to offset the cost of fixing the problem of overcrowded schools.
Personally, I get a headache trying to figure out the mechanics of all these fees and charges.
But does that mean there should be a flat fee?
Some builders and community leaders agree with Hubbard.
"What is needed is for us to raise revenues to build schools," Hubbard said in defense of his proposal. "A flat fee charge to me is a very common-sense approach."
Okay. He's got a point.
Not really, counters Estepp.
"The concept of a flat fee may have merit to it, but in what context?" Estepp said. "I know everybody is frustrated by overcrowding in the schools. But the problem with overcrowding is much more far reaching than new construction. There are a lot of other factors contributing to this problem."
Really, I don't have a clue which system might work better. That's why I agree with Estepp that all this running around trying to find piecemeal fixes to a comprehensive problem is getting us nowhere.
"I don't think we should be tinkering with policies that are already in place until we get the full picture from the commission," Estepp said.
Why can't we all wait for the report from Commission 2000? the chairman asked.
Commission 2000 is the task force created to examine and make recommendations about growth and development in the county. The council created this 53-member panel to chart a way out of this mess, and its report is due at the end of the year.
One of the things I like about the commission is that it's made up of a diverse group that includes business leaders, parents, environmentalists and community activists. That means, or at least I hope it means, all angles and points of view will be considered.
Still, Hubbard doesn't think there's time to wait on the commission, whose recommendations could take years to implement, he contends.
"Are we suppose to sit around and wait as capacity grows in 30-year-old schools?" he asked.
Of course not.
But if we've spent decades in this county without a comprehensive plan, it's worth waiting a bit more to see what the commission comes up with. After all, not having a plan--most important, one that includes consistent and adequate impact fees for new housing developments--is what got us to this point in the first place.
Talkin' Money appears in the Prince George's Extra on the third Wednesday of every month. You can write to me c/o "Talkin' Money" 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAPTION: James W. Hubbard, left, and M.H. Jim Estepp disagree on fees.