Fort Mill residents: Builders, newcomers must fork out more for first-class education

Residents in the Fort Mill School District say they're being taxed enough. They say builders and newcomers should pay the cost of future growth.

Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday night in York to urge York County Council to increase impact fees on development in Fort Mill.

Council members did vote in favor of a substantial fee increase. However, that won't become official unless council members approve the change in a final vote on July 16. If approved, the fee would be imposed on new homes built anywhere in the district, regardless of jurisdiction. The town of Fort Mill has already enacted its own set of impact fees for new construction inside town limits and the city of Tega Cay also is considering charging impact fees.

Robin Peterson has four sons, in Fort Mill middle and elementary schools.

"We came to the Fort Mill area and came for the schools, like many people, from CMS in Charlotte," she said. "The impact fee is very important. I think we can continue to raise taxes, but that's really not a long-term solution."

Peterson said building many new homes in the district puts some responsibility on home builders to help with costs incurred by the growing population.

"I think that growth should pay for growth," she said. "I think that builders need to go ahead and pay for the homes that they're building."

Because someone is going to have to pay for a growing school district, Peterson is fine with builders — and new homeowners who pay through higher home prices — contributing more.

"It would be a shame to put the burden all on the people that already live here," she said.

A $2,500 fee is now charged for each new residence in the Fort Mill school district. That fee has been in place since 1996. Last year, the Fort Mill district asked York County to consider increasing the development fee to $10,000.

A study by the same consultant the county used for an unrelated, ongoing impact fee study of its own found new homes in the Fort Mill school district could pay up to $18,000 each and apartments up to $12,000 each to meet school needs caused by population growth.

The county planning commission recommended an increase of about $5,000 for each new home, with the fee remaining at $2,500 for apartments.

The council's decision Wednesday night put the figure at $18,000 per home, what the consultant had proposed.

"We're just trying to convince people we need to do this a different way," said resident Judge Collier.

Collier, who has two middle school students in Fort Mill, and who moved from the Clover school district in 2015, said the fee needs to be as high as the law allows.

"It is something that I think needs to be passed to the maximum limit that most people in there are asking for," he said. "We need the money. We need to continue to be able to give our kids a first-class education."

The Fort Mill district has doubled in size the past 10 years and added 13 new schools since the fee was enacted in 1996. The district is about to open a new high school, and break ground on three more schools.

The result has been a 160 percent increase on property taxes for debt repayment, and the highest debt tax rate in the state, said Kristy Spears, chairwoman of the Fort Mill School District.

"It doesn't need to be continuously on the backs of the homeowners when the builders are just building, they leave, they're done," Collier said. "And we're left holding the bag. So that has to change."

Collier said the development fees are the best answer to the growth and funding equation.

"You can't continue, in my opinion, to do the same thing over and over and over and over, expecting something new when you've not tried anything different," he said. "And this is the something that's different. I think something that's more effective."

Opposition to increased fees has come from real estate and home builder groups. That concern is that people will be priced out of homes and growth could slow or stall.

Spears doesn't believe the fees will have that impact.

"We believe that the schools we have in our community are really what bring people to the town of Fort Mill and the City of Tega Cay," she said. "And that's because we know our schools have a tradition of excellence by any yardstick you would choose to measure."

The school district has been "somewhat a product of our own success," Spears said.

Martha Kinard has worked for years in real estate, but also served on the school board and the Foundation for Fort Mill Schools. Kinard has a daughter teaching at Fort Mill High School.

She said the board in 1996 passed the fee "knowing that it wasn't going to eliminate growth" and that the fee was not enough.

"Had I known what Fort Mill was going to be today, what the population of Fort Mill is today, I would have certainly encouraged the board to ask for more money," Kinard said.

The planning commission recommendation of $5,000 per home would put the fee at what a consultant suggested it be in 1996. However, the consultant estimated only a few new schools would be needed by 2020.

"It was before Baxter was built," Kinard said. "It was before Regent Park was built. It was before Tega Cay was built out. So many neighborhoods were still just ideas in people's heads."

Kinard said the school district needs money to pay for growth. The district also is the driving force for residential growth.

"The main reason people move to Fort Mill is for the schools," Kinard said. "That's the No. 1 reason that drives people to this area. It's key that we do as much as we can with the options we have, and certainly raising the impact fee is the best option we have right now," she said.

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
Related stories from Rock Hill Herald