Another day, another $10The cost of having the municipal judge preside over a wedding is going up 20 percent next year in Grand Forks. The cost of having fire protection if you live outside city limits is going up 3 percent. The cost of a permit to sell Christmas trees isn’t going up at all.
By: Tu-Uyen Tran, Grand Forks Herald
The cost of having the municipal judge preside over a wedding is going up 20 percent next year in Grand Forks. The cost of having fire protection if you live outside city limits is going up 3 percent. The cost of a permit to sell Christmas trees isn’t going up at all.
These proposed fee increases appear to go all over the place, stirring up feelings of annoyance among some City Council members who say the increases are just arbitrary; they want fees to go up across the board based on inflation.
City staff members tell the Herald the increases they proposed are, fundamentally, based on the costs of providing these services, but had a hard time explaining that under grilling by the council.
In some cases, they say, they haven’t increased fees for many years and are just playing catch up.
Council President Hal Gershman started the whole thing when he asked why staff had not indexed fees to inflation as the council had guided some years ago.
Council Vice President Eliot Glassheim said most of the fees did go up by a consistent 3 percent, except staff rounded the amount to the nearest $1 or $5.
The council couldn’t come to an agreement so the whole thing is going back to the finance committee where it came from for another round of debate tonight at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.
For most city residents, the disagreement over fees would amount to a few dollars, but, for the city fees are a key part of the budget. Fees and fines, as a category, makeup about a fifth of the budget.
Interviews with city staff and analysis of the fee schedule revealed a few things.
First, many of the fees have been indexed to inflation for years, though with rounding they appear random, some up 2.9 percent and some up 3.4 percent. Over several years, they come out to an average of 3 percent.
“The public likes that better. They really do. They’d rather pay $17 than $16.75,” said Bev Collings, head of the inspections department, which issues building permits and sets up meetings to appeal zoning decisions, among other things.
Still, in an effort to placate the council, staff now proposes fee schedules based on inflation of 3 percent, with an option with no rounding — a permit to build a driveway could cost $32.96 — and one with rounding — $33.
Note that the standard Midwest inflation rate determined by the federal government has gone up 1.5 percent between this past August and August 2009. That rate is determined by a standard “basket of goods” that includes everything from groceries to gasoline, meaning they don’t always match with the actual cost of service.
Cost of service
On the other hand, many of the fees were based on a 1994 cost-of-service study, which was detailed enough to average out the number hours of staff time per license request.
For example, then-City Engineer Ken Vein explained in detail why he wanted the fee for moving a building to go up from $60 to $160. It costs $60 just to publish the notice in the “city briefs” section of the Herald and another $40 to publish it in the legal briefs. There’s $10 for a building permit, a separate cost explained elsewhere. There’s 90 minutes of staff time at $21.05 an hour, including wages and benefits. And there’s a 10-percent administrative overhead at $14.16. That’s a total of $155.74, rounded up to $160.
Finance Director Saroj Jerath furnished the report, fuming a little over the accusation of arbitrariness. She said fee increases since 1994 have been based on inflation, but the original fee structure was based on actual costs.
She also noted, as Glassheim did, that some fees didn’t change because they’re already based on the market values, meaning they already go up with inflation. Building permits, for example, are pegged to the value of the building being built, she said.
In the case of utility fees, the fees have been consistently based on cost of service. Public Works Director Todd Feland said that’s why garbage fees are only up 2 percent while water fees are up 5 percent. The cost of energy and chemicals have risen faster than usual.
Then there are fee increases that really do look arbitrary.
Why is the cost of a wedding going up from $50 to $60 in one year?
Darla Feilen, the clerk of court, said the fees haven’t gone up since four years ago when the municipal judge decided to do weddings; district court decided to discontinue the service. When the city finance department asked if the fees are still up-to-date, she said, he decided on $60 based on the going rate in the area.
That works out to a 4 to 6 percent annual increase, rounding up to the nearest $5.
How about the Christmas tree permits, which aren’t going up at all?
Collings said there are only two permits issued a year and it seemed kind of silly to change it from a round $50 just for that.
How about pet licenses?
Jerath said they’re not going up because the city doesn’t want to discourage pet owners from registering their pets. It’s a policy decision, she said.
Some other increases not based on inflation, such as the fee for emergency alarm services, were set by the council itself earlier this year. The inflation indexing policy wasn’t discussed then.
Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.