In what should not be news, the Brown County Commission decided yesterday to charge Otter Tail Power Company and Montana-Dakota Utilities $3 per $1,000 of project cost for the permit to build the Big Stone South to Ellendale transmission line. That building permit fee is the same the county would charge anyone else seeking a building permit. In this case, since the Brown County stretch of the BSSE line will cost about $100 million to build, the total building permit fee will be about $300,000
This decision is news only because the BSSE developers had asked the commission to cap the building permit fee at $100,000. The utilities only wanted to pay $1 per $1000 in value, a rate one third of what you and I would pay for building a garage or house or body shop, because, you know, they’re big, and in corporate America, big means special. Attorney Ken Gosch argued that the building permit fee exists “to make sure the county doesn’t lose money in processing the permit,” but that’s absurd. We don’t charge vehicle license fees or state park admission fees or sales tax just to cover the cost of processing the transaction. We charge these fees and taxes to provide revenue for public services. Building permit fees don’t just pay the zoning officer to open her file cabinet. They help the county collect revenue to pay for the externalities of construction (trucks using our roads, kicking up dust, inconveniencing citizens) in proportion to the size of the project.
According to Elisa Sand’s report, Commissioners Doug Fjeldheim and Rachel Kippley both had the good sense to see the commission “not doing our taxpayers justice” to do the BSSE power line such a huge favor. The line is coming, Otter Tail and MDU can afford the fee, and by gum, it’s the law!
But Commissioner Nancy Hansen tied the building permit fee decision to her desire to “look at the fee schedule in the future to see if changes are needed.” If Commissioner Hansen wants to create a schedule of lower building permit rates for big projects, she is essentially looking for a more regressive tax system. Wealthy builders can absorb a 0.3% additional cost on their large projects more easily than working-class builders of shops, homes, and garages.
Why do a favor for folks who don’t need it? Brown County made the right call yesterday in saying that, big or small, you pay for your building permit, same as everyone else. The county should leave that simple system alone.