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Ashland schools want no more fees for latest bond projects

Ashland City Council voted to hold off on city fee schedule changes while it works with school administration on a plan

When it comes to bond projects, the Ashland School District believes it is getting hit with an “astronomic[al]” amount of fees that some municipalities charge just a fraction of or not at all. Now, school representatives are making a passionate plea to Ashland City Council members to change that.

According to the Ashland School District, it has paid $2 million in city fees associated with major school renovation projects the district is bonding for. Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove and district representatives have written to the city explaining how the funds “impact our schools unreasonably” and “constitutes double taxation” against voters who approved a bond measure in 2019.

Although the city has made some revisions to its fee structure over the past 20 years, it noted in recent meeting documents, certain fees remain uncapped and Ashland claims it needs those fees to help pay for services.

The Dec. 7 council meeting allowed Bogdanove and school board member Jill Franko to outline their situation to the board and present a fee proposal, which counselors openly discussed.

The plan would involve capping all fees already paid and eliminating future fees for the remainder of the bond project, which includes major upgrades to Walker Elementary, Ashland middle and high schools, Helman Elementary and the John Muir Outdoor School.

For the long term, Bogdanove would like to see Ashland align its fee structure with other cities in the region and eliminate the “community development” fee “for our children’s children.”

“By doing that now, and putting that in place for tax-funded entities as we move forward, I think it’s the right direction for the city,” Bogdanove said during the meeting. “If you don’t feel you have the information you need tonight, I would encourage you to take time to deliberate.”

And that’s what the council decided to do, holding off on any vote to change the fee structure until city staff could vet the proposal.

“The ask that we’ve heard tonight from the school district is quite a bit different than what [Community Development Director] Bill [Molnar] and I worked on,” Alison Chan, Ashland’s interim finance director, told councilors.

In documents contained within the council’s meeting agenda, found online, city staff came up with three options to change the current fee structure. Staff recommended that the council approve option 3, which includes a community development fee cap of $100,000, regardless of whether the entity is public.

The cap could be applied retroactively to projects issued a permit since July 2021. Accordingly, the Ashland Middle School and Helman Elementary School projects that have paid fees of approximately $424,000, and the Walker Elementary School project that paid fees of $222,000 would be eligible to receive a refund of $346,000.

Chan noted during the meeting that the cap would impact future revenues to the city’s general fund, however, “we don’t believe we’ll have a significant negative impact in ongoing revenue streams.”

In an interview with the Mail Tribune after the meeting, Molar said the district’s proposal Tuesday was “well beyond what we presented.”

Bogdanove said the district’s presentation Dec. 7 was in fact different from previous communications with the city — and even gave officials there a head’s up.

“We amended the ask and the Bond Oversight Committee — a voluntary committee of community volunteers that provide oversight of Bond expenditures — and the school board sent letters to the city, the mayor and the city councilors on the Friday prior to the meeting,” Bogdanove wrote. “It is understandable that they did not have time to digest and respond to the changed request.”

He reiterated his comments from the meeting that the city’s proposal Tuesday “fell far short.”

“The city proposed a per project cap of $100,000 for community development fees per project, [which] would still have netted the city over $3M in total fees — significantly out of line with other municipalities,” Bogdanove wrote in an email to the newspaper. “Further, it did not address the request to abate future community development fees for the remainder of the bond projects or provide consideration in assessing fees applied to tax-funded entities like public schools.”

In an interview after the meeting, Molnar said he was confident a new fee plan could be crafted in consultation with the district.

“These are difficult items that [we] want to figure out how we can work together and coordinate a solution that works both for the city and Ashland schools,” Molnar said.

Bogdanove extended his appreciation to the city.

"I am confident that the city, the mayor and the council will examine the issues raised and work toward solutions in the community’s interests,“ he wrote in an email.

Molnar added that the district may have “a very good point” in terms of the challenges associated with the current fee schedule.

“Should certain fees be capped at a certain point, due to the value of a project,” Molnar said. “When it’s a straight percentage, those permit fees can get maybe higher than the applicant expected.”