Understanding User Fees and the Community's Right-of-Way

A friend once told me about his battle with the local government over whether it would charge him a fee for inspecting the house he wanted to begin renting out (he had bought another house but didn't want to sell the first in a down market). His house was well maintained and he said he would be happy to schedule the inspection whenever convenient for the City but absolutely would not pay a fee so they could inspect his house.

Consider this from a different perspective. The local government should make sure that rental properties meet certain standards (building and fire codes if nothing else). This means inspections. Who should pay for the inspections? It boils down to two choices: the property owner or the tax-base at large. It seems more fair to charge property owners at least a portion of the cost as they benefit the most from being able to rent out their property.

I make this point to lead into another discussion about managing the Right-of-Way (ROW), the city-owned property used for utilities. An article in TribLive about a town near Pittsburgh fighting to keep its cable fees offers insight into a national discussion about fees for using the ROW.

Hempfield charges utilities $750 for a right-of-way permit, $500 for a renewal, and $250 for a construction permit, according to a township ordinance.

Ferguson said without the fees, the township would not be able to monitor the work.

"We use the monies, those permit fees, to pay staff to make sure they repair roads as they're supposed to," Ferguson said. "Part of the fee is ... for our inspectors to go out and make sure they (utilities) complete the job right."

Ferguson said utility companies sometimes dig up new roads to install or repair lines and leave the road in shambles afterward.

"Taxpayers should not be required to pay the staff to make sure utility companies do the right thing," he said.

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Telecommunications providers have long claimed that local government fees are unreasonable and getting the necessary permits is too difficult. But when asked to document such claims, they rarely do. The FCC is currently examining whether it believes the fees charged by local governments are fair.

While we believe it would be counter-productive for local governments to make it too difficult to access the ROW, we simply have seen very little evidence that it is a common practice. What we do see is a history of massive companies like AT&T using their vast lobbying power to limit local authority in ways that transfer costs from companies like AT&T to the community to benefit AT&T's shareholders.

The next interesting question will be what the FCC does about it. It will be hard to watch the FCC, which believes it does not have the power to protect local authority against state laws limiting their ability to build broadband networks, go ahead and overrule local authority to require telecom companies to properly compensate local governments for use of the ROW.

For Rent photo used under creative commons license, courtesy of HowNowDesign