A proposal that would raise a fee builders pay toward Howard County school construction costs drew tense opposition Wednesday from developers, affordable housing advocates and businesses, all of whom described the bill as regressive.

The measure, which is poised to pass the County Council, would hike the one-time fee assessed on new homes from $1.32 per square foot to $6.80 per square foot, a 415% increase. The fee is charged to developers who build new homes.

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Opponents say this cost will be passed on to the consumer, thus increasing the cost of homes countywide.

But the revenue — lawmakers expect to generate $150 million over 10 years — would help pay for the school system’s renovation, maintenance and construction costs. As of late June 2018, the school system still has $54.3 million in debt service, according to a state analysis.

The school system last week announced a much-needed replacement of the 46-year-old, one-story Talbott Springs Elementary School will be delayed by at least three years because of anticipated low budgeting from the county, schools Superintendent Michael Martirano previously said.

This delay was cited by school board chairwoman Mavis Ellis who Wednesday evening testified officials “cannot keep promising school improvements to our local families only to continually defer them when funding looks bleak.”

Her sentiment was echoed by dozens of community members and Howard County Education Association President Colleen Morris. But the significant proposed cost increase would be a detriment to affordable housing in the area, said Peter Engel, director of the Howard County Housing Commission.

Engel implored lawmakers to exempt affordable housing from being subject to the proposed increase. The director said he recognizes the needs of the school system but it “needs to be balanced with other county needs." He also said passing the bill as-is would exacerbating Howard’s housing crisis.

The current fee in Howard is noticeably lower than surrounding counties, and the method by which the fee is calculated varies. In Prince George’s County, developers are charged $9,550 per unit on new structures within the Beltway or near mass transit. Most buildings outside the Beltway are charged $16,371 per unit. In Anne Arundel, single-family detached homes are charged a flat rate of $12,177 per unit while apartments are charged $6,651 per unit.

Angelica Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Building Industry Association, described the proposal as a “regressive tax.”

“If such an increase is implemented,” Bailey said, “the cost of homebuilding will increase, which will be passed on to homebuyers.”

“Buyers at the highest price points will have the easiest time absorbing the cost, so builders will be incentivized to build larger homes in the West instead of more affordable homes in more urbanized and walkable areas,” she added.

In western Howard County, the average single-family detached unit size is 6,923 square feet. For a house that size, developers would pay $47,076 under the proposed fee increase, up from $9,138 now, according to an analysis of figures provided by Councilwoman Deb Jung, the bill’s primary sponsor.

The measure has formal support from the four Democrats on the five-member County Council: Deb Jung, Opel Jones, Christiana Mercer Rigby and Liz Walsh. The County Council will host a work session on this bill and others Friday morning in the George Howard Building.

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