Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Education

Bowen: Tax idea will have little impact on school fee debate

On the first Wednesday in March, Pasco's residential development community boasted about the changing demographics of the county's recent new-home buyers.

Here's what they told a Pasco Economic Development Committee gathering: In Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel, new homes averaged $450,000; in Starkey Ranch in Odessa, $425,000; in Bexley by Newland Communities in Land O'Lakes, about $350,000.

A funny thing must have happened over the next month.

On the first Wednesday in April, different members of the home-building industry suggested that a proposal that would raise the average price of a home in Wiregrass Ranch less than 1 percent, to $454,152, would price people out of buying new homes in Pasco.

That is some of the logic being kicked around as a county advisory committee wrestles with a pitch from the Pasco School Board to increase its impact fees on new single-family homes from $4,876 to $9,028 to help pay for school construction.

Five members of the 10-person committee are School Board appointees. They are parents and retirees. County commissioners named the other five. They are builders and developers. Guess which half of the committee is showing the most reticence toward recommending a higher impact fee?

"It sounds to me like everybody has made up their mind and that's, 'We're going to double your impact fee,' " said Jennifer Motsinger, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.

Among the alternatives Motsinger and others tossed around were selling district-owned land; lobbying the Legislature for greater taxing authority and asking Pasco voters to approve a new property tax for school construction.

Putting excess land on the market will generate some dollars, if buyers come forward. But the idea of a higher impact fee is to generate nearly $121 million over the next decade. The district isn't sitting on that kind of land, and officials note that School Board property near Gulf High School has been on the market but with no takers.

By the way, even if the full impact fee is adopted, the School Board's 10-year capital plan still has a $284 million deficit.

Asking the current Legislature for greater taxing authority, either through an increased millage or a new real estate transfer tax, is a waste of time. Remember House Speaker Richard Corcoran's response to the idea of funneling new revenue from higher property values to education?

"Hell, no,'' the Land O'Lakes Republican said.

That brings us to the proposal for a 2018 referendum, asking voters to authorize a new property tax. I will try to be a little more delicate than Corcoran.

Let's just say that a new property tax is unlikely.

For starters, 45 percent of the Penny for Pasco sales tax goes to the school district, which is using the money to renovate its 1970s-era schools. That 10-year tax doesn't expire until 2024. For another, the voting public doesn't always support schools, despite statements to the contrary. Voters rejected a three-year, quarter-mill property tax in 2010 intended to offset a $40 million operating deficit. In essence, voters picked laying off teachers, cutting salary and benefits for employees, curtailing extracurricular activities and eliminating nonessential classes like driver's education over paying an additional 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for three years.

So, what do you think would be the reaction to a referendum to tax current homeowners more so home builders wouldn't have to pass through higher impact fees to their customers?

"It's not fair to the people who have lived in Pasco County and have paid their fair share of taxes already to be asked to pay for the needs caused by growth,'' Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano said in an interview. "The builders need to understand, while we are please to see the growth, it's the growth that's causing the growing pains in Pasco County with the need for additional schools, need for additional law enforcement and need for additional roads.''

It also comes as Pasco commissioners are planning to raise stormwater assessments for flooding fixes, and may ask voters to consider their own 2018 tax referendum to build and maintain parks.

"I would not support that,'' County Commission Chairman Mike Moore said of a school tax. "No, we can't ask taxpayers for a property tax increase for that.''

All of which makes the commentary from impact fee committee member Hugh Townsend more astute.

"These are wonderful ideas, but the practicality is they're not going to be implemented,'' he said. "Let's move on.''

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