City leaders question Lawrence school district request to waive building permit fees

City Manager Tom Markus is questioning the Lawrence school district’s request for the city to partially waive permitting fees for the district’s upcoming construction projects.

Lawrence voters approved an $87 million bond issue in May to pay for school renovations, and district leaders recently sent a letter to the city requesting it waive 50 percent of the permitting fees.

Markus sent a letter in response asking the district to substantiate the request, which he brought to the City Commission’s attention at its meeting this week.

“Typically, when another jurisdiction issues bonds for an improvement like this, they incorporate these types of fees into the cost,” Markus said. “It’s my belief that these costs are clearly eligible to be paid for out of bond proceeds.”

The school district’s letter notes that the city made a “similar arrangement” regarding permitting fees for construction projects funded by the district’s 2013 bond issue. The letter states the district determined the permitting fees for this round of projects would cost about $180,000, and requested the city “waive half” of the fees.

“The entire community benefits when governmental entities work in partnership and when bond issue dollars can be maximized to improve public schools and support students,” the letter states.

The letter also states the district wants to be good partners and follow city processes for conducting plan reviews, issuing permits, inspecting the construction, and issuing certificates of occupancy.

Markus’ letter to the district states permit fees are a standard cost associated with all construction in the city, and asks whether permit fees were not contemplated when budgeting for the $87 million of school projects. He also asks if the district is asking their consultants, vendors, contractors and others associated with the bond projects to discount their fees.

Markus also asks to know what the partial fee waiver means.

“The city provides excellent plan review and inspection services to help ensure safety at job sites and for future occupants of buildings, but those services have hard costs associated with them,” Markus wrote. “Are you seeking a reduction in these services since you are asking to pay only fifty percent (50%) of the service fees?”

Mayor Leslie Soden told the Journal-World that she thinks Markus “definitely makes some good points.” Soden also brought up a 2015 accident at New York Elementary School, in which an 8-year-old boy was injured after her wandered onto the construction site.

That accident occurred after a deal between the city and the school district related to building inspections on that site and other school sites. The city waived the permitting fees for those projects and allowed the school district to arrange private inspections. After the accident, questions arose as to whether those inspections had been adequate.

Soden said she definitely doesn’t want the city decreasing its level of inspection.

“I think it’s important to go ahead and make sure everything is squared away, especially with the accident,” Soden said. “I think it’s appropriate to go ahead and collect those fees.”

But Soden said she wants to hear more information about the school district’s request, and exactly what is being sought. She said she would also like to hear more from Markus — who has worked in several cities — about whether such a request is typical.

Markus’ letter posed several additional questions, including a point about how a partial fee waiver would shift additional burden on city taxpayers as compared to those who live within the school district boundaries but outside the city.

In Markus’ report to the commission, he noted the city and school district have a “strong working relationship,” and that once he learns more information he foresees bringing the topic to the commission for discussion.