When Jim Eidson bought his Athol home, $1,000 went to City Hall.
The money was to help pay for a sewage plant to wean Athol of aquifer-unfriendly septic tanks.
That was two years ago.
Today, there is no treatment plant, and city officials concede there probably never will be. At nearly $3 million, the cost is just too high.
That revelation has led to a question that is sparking a raucous miniscandal in this usually sleepy city of 420. The dispute is dividing city leaders, pitting developers against residents, and almost led to blows at a recent City Council meeting.
The question: Should the money go back to builders or homeowners?
“Most of us are hard-working middle-class people barely living paycheck to paycheck,” said homeowner Eidson, 41. “We don’t have a thousand dollars laying around. We need that money.”
The city collected $73,000 from new homes in the two years since initiating the capitalization fee, said Mayor Lanny Spurlock. But the cash came to city coffers through a handful of builders.
“Our lawyer checked some records and it has to go back to whoever wrote us the checks,” said Spurlock. “But, of course, that’s iffy as hell.”
Spurlock said attorney John Topp based that decision on moves by Coeur d’Alene and Hayden, which recently were forced to return illegally collected impact fees to builders.
But a growing cadre of residents, led by Eidson - a long-haul trucker laid up with an arm injury - argued this isn’t an impact fee.
Unlike impact fees - collected for generic unspecified future improvements - this money was for a specific service. Besides, they argued, builders merely added that capitalization fee to the cost of their homes so the money should come to them.
“The multiple listing service said we were getting a community sewer system,” said resident Jan Lundsford. “Well, then we’re not getting what we paid for.
“And we paid for it because there’s no way those builders ate that fee.”
Builder Bob Foxx disagreed.
“To say builders just added that in isn’t true,” said Foxx, who built nine homes in Athol’s newest subdivision, Northern Meadows. “You can’t just add $1,000 to the cost of a house in a place like Athol. People only buy there because it’s cheap.”
The debate came to a head earlier this week at the City Council meeting.
Councilman Joe Jensen, who owns a Northern Meadows home, sided with the residents.
“We’re all sitting up here on septic tanks now, and if a sewer system comes in in 20 years, we’ll have to pay for it again,” he said. “We were told by Realtors that money was added to our homes.”
Spurlock, who also owns a new home, threw up his hands.
“Maybe it should go to the bank that holds the mortgage, I don’t know,” he said in exasperation.
Jensen said there “were almost some fisticuffs” outside the council chambers that night because tension between builders and homeowners already was high.
“Some builders have filed bankruptcy or moved out of state and these people have problems with their homes,” he said.
Even Jensen complained he had to fight with his builder to get better ventilation for a gas water heater.
The City Council asked the state attorney general’s office to rule on the matter before making a decision. Residents, meanwhile, are initiating their own letter-writing campaign to the state.
“Even if we don’t get the money, I don’t think it should go to the builders,” Eidson said. “I’d rather have it go to the school district than them.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map of Athol area