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Chairman breaks tie on refund vote

POSTED: December 5, 2013 8:39 p.m.

Chairman Wendall Kessler had to cast the tie-breaking vote as Effingham County commissioners voted 3-2 to refund water and sewer impact fees to four property owners.


The chairman’s vote had been rescinded in all matters except those where a deadlock among commissioners had existed. The tie happened when Commissioner Vera Jones, who was the developer of the subdivision where the impact fees refund requests originated, recused herself from voting.


The property owners asked for the refunds because they had not built homes on the land.


The fees were collected, interim county administrator Toss Allen said, at the time the lots were sold and not when a building permit was issued. No building permits have been issued for the lots in question.


Kessler asked the commissioners to approve the refund request and to consider approving subsequent requests that fall under the same criteria.


“I think there are others in this particular neighborhood this is going to bring life to, so that we don’t have to deal with these over and over,” he said.


Commissioners Forrest Floyd and Phil Kieffer voted in favor of the refunds. Commissioners Steve Mason and Reggie Loper voted against the request, which were approximately $4,500 each for water and sewer impact fees. Mason asked why the impact fees were paid at closing rather than at the issuance of a building permit for the lots in South Effingham Plantation.


Jones said the subdivision was built according to the county’s requirements, and her company’s engineers and the county’s engineers worked on the water and sewer infrastructure, with the developer putting in the lines to reach a connection point and the county extending its lines to that point.


She added the development’s water and sewer agreement with the county required that they guarantee a certain amount of payments to be made for a year, regardless if any lots were sold or anyone built on those lots.


“That was in violation of the developmental impact fee act,” she said. “We were unaware of that at the time. When we sold lots, we were simply trying to comply with the county. In attempting to be a good steward, I put into my contract that anybody who bought a lot must pay the water and sewer fee to the county at the time.”


Kessler said it was his understanding that payment of the impact fees was part of the sales contract, and Jones added water and sewer fees typically are not paid without a building permit. She also questioned what process the county used to make sure there was a building permit application. Jones said the county should have mailed the checks back to the closing attorney, saying those funds could be held in escrow.


“But that’s not what occurred,” she said.


Jones also said the county did not know what was in the sales contracts.


“They made an agreement with me to pay the fees, but none of us knew that that did not comply with Georgia state law,” she said. “I’ll be the first to admit my own ignorance was in trusting local government to require something of me that didn’t follow the law.”


Mason asked if any of the water and sewer impact fees were reimbursed to DM Jones Construction, the subdivision developer.


“None of the money came to DM Jones,” Commissioner Jones said. “The money that came to DM Jones was for work that was done.”


Kessler cut off the exchange between Jones and Mason, declaring it irrelevant for the topic at hand.


“What is important is for these people who paid their money whether or not we should refund it to them,” he said. “It’s whether or not we need to refund this money in this subdivision under these conditions.”


Said Jones: “It’s not irrelevant if it’s going to be constantly brought up as something I’ve done improper.”


Mason said the reason he believed Jones wanted to make sure the county got its money is so her company would get reimbursed.


“That’s my question,” he said.


“That’s another issue for another forum at another time,” Kessler said.


Allen said he did think there were any other lots under similar circumstances of having paid impact fees without a building permit issued in that subdivision.

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