'High as they'll let us go': Why Fort Mill's pitch to pay for schools may be too low.

A construction crew works on a newly built home in the Brayden community in Fort Mill back in 2016. A decision is expected next month about new impact fees the Fort Mill school district can charge on each new home to help pay for the impact residential growth has on the district.
A construction crew works on a newly built home in the Brayden community in Fort Mill back in 2016. A decision is expected next month about new impact fees the Fort Mill school district can charge on each new home to help pay for the impact residential growth has on the district.

If it seemed like a big ask when Fort Mill schools wanted quadrupled impact fees, just wait and see what they could be getting.

The study that'll serve as the foundation of the Fort Mill School District's request for increased impact fees is in, and it shows the district could be getting more per new home than the current $2,500. More than the $10,000 requested by the district, even — way more.

State law allows, based on current population and growth levels in the Fort Mill area, up to $18,945 per new house and up to $12,526 per apartment unit. That's what's possible. What will actually be charged is yet to be determined.

York County's planning commission heard the study results Monday night. The commission will make a formal recommendation to York County Council, which will set the final numbers. Just because the study found how much the county could charge each new residence, doesn't mean those figures will stick.

"There was no recommendation given last night," county Planning Services Manager Stephen Allen said on Tuesday. "Information was presented. They'll make a recommendation at the May 14 meeting."

Impact fees are charges on new construction. They can fund a variety of pre-established services, from schools to fire and police to utilities and more, depending on the municipality collecting them. They can be charges on residential, commercial and other construction.

The school impact fee only is charged on residential construction, and only pays for facility improvements or new capacity to serve growth, such as acquiring land for future schools.

Public bodies that set up impact fees, as the town of Fort Mill did three years ago, typically set the rates at a little below what state law allows to avoid legal challenges. They can set the rates at any amount up to the cap allowed by law, which is determined by existing services, how much they cost and how much it would cost (in this case per new home or apartment) to maintain that service level as growth arrives.

If a town, county or school district is concerned about the cost to developers and builders, it can lower the fee within the allowable amount. If not, the fee can be set near the top.

Larry Barnett, who serves the Fort Mill area on the planning commission, wasn't at Monday's meeting, but intends to be there next month for the final recommendation. Even without seeing the numbers, Barnett knew which way he'd vote.

"My feeling is we should go as high as they'll let us go," he said. "I'd say go for as much as we can justify."

Barnett has been a vocal critic of what he sees as too much growth in the area to support critical public services. He supports increased school impact fees on the same basis.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "We're growing insanely, and we don't have the money for the roads, the schools. I'm going to go for whatever we can get."

Kristy Spears, chairwoman of the school board in Fort Mill, was encouraged when she heard how much state law would allow the district, through the county, to charge.

"That's really what it amounts to," she said. "Regardless what the number is, that's the impact that a new home is having. Period. That's also the ability we have, under state law, to pass those costs on to new growth."

The estimates were conservative, with the district not factoring in buses, administration buildings and other costs that could've gone into the formula. The growth projection used is a lower rate than regional growth planners envision for the area.

The district knew the cost of growth was higher than what it was charging when, late last year, leaders asked the county to increase the current $2,500 fee to $10,000. The amount hasn't changed since the district began collecting impact fees in 1996.

"What we'd asked for originally was just what we'd guessed they might be," Spears said.

With what it costs to have schools, land for schools and other facilities for them to learn, the capital cost per elementary school student in the district is more than $26,000. For a high school student it's more than $46,000.

If the county were to allow the top amount for impact fees, the study estimates taxpayers could save 21 to 54 percent on their school tax bills. A typical vehicle tax would drop from $102.94 to $47.08. The median $1,290 tax on a house and the property it's on would be lowered to $590 and similar results would come to commercial properties.

"It's a huge benefit to existing residents," Spears said.

The other side of the coin involves builders, or anyone buying a new residence. They would cost more. The median home value now in the district is more than $255,000. The typical new home is closer to $400,000.

"It is going to make housing more expensive," Spears said. "It's a slight downside."

When discussing separate county impact fees, some county council members had reservations even looking into new rules when some areas of the county — Fort Mill, Tega Cay, Lake Wylie — are growing rapidly while others aren't. The school impact fee shouldn't generate those same concerns, as it would only apply within school district boundaries. An area with near universal growth.

"It is specific," Spears said. "The fee would be unique and specific to the Fort Mill school district boundaries. I am hopeful that they understand the issues that this part of the county is dealing with. We believe this is a good solution to the problem that we've been facing."

Spears said residents are tired of being asked via referendum to finance "bond after bond after bond" as the main way to pay for new schools and needed facilities. Voters approved the most recent bond request, a $190 million package, last month.

For anyone who feels Fort Mill is maxing out on its growth rate already, the impact fee study has more surprising numbers. The district has just over 15,000 students now. That number is expected to nearly double in 15 years. In 20 years, the estimate is 34,052 students.

Meaning more than twice as many total students two decades from now as there were total residents in Fort Mill in 2016.

Spears is hopeful the latest numbers will stir county leaders to up the school impact fee significantly.

"From this point forward it's sort of in their hands," she said.

County planners had hoped to have a final decision on the fees in May. Now, it looks like the May 14 planning commission recommendation will start the process with three county council readings and a public hearing to follow. That timeline would put a public hearing on June 18 and the final decision July 16.

Any fee change could be in place before a new school year arrives.

"This is how the state law is written," Spears said of how much it could be. "It's available to us. It's just a question of how much tax relief do you want to provide existing residents, and pass it on to new residents?"

John Marks: 326-4015; @JohnFMTimes