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Hillsborough, School Board fee feud goes to court

TAMPA — Two of Hillsborough's biggest governments are feuding over who will pay the massive costs associated with the area's now-faded housing boom.

The dispute between Hillsborough County and the School Board spills into Circuit Court today. Whoever wins, taxpayers are still on the hook for millions to build adequate streets, sidewalks and traffic signals around new schools. What's at stake is which government pays a greater share of those costs.

The governmental faceoff is a telling snapshot of post-boom Florida, where an anemic economy has drained public coffers just as money is needed to pay for infrastructure to support the growth from the past few years. It's every government for itself in a mad scramble to find new revenue and shed costs.

That's why today's showdown is getting statewide attention.

"Hillsborough just happened to be one of the very first that has gone this far," said Bill Montford, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "Sooner or later, Florida had to address this issue as to who is responsible for the infrastructure. The budget just happened to be the thing that brought it to the head quicker."

During the Hillsborough housing boom of 2002 to 2006, developers pulled more than 73,000 housing permits, and the district built 36 schools.

Both the county and the School Board lauded an arrangement where school officials reviewed rezonings to determine if there were enough classrooms before commissioners approved new housing. School officials didn't object to more than 90 percent of the county rezonings between 2003 and July 2005.

But as its construction budget swelled, the School Board concluded it needed more money to cover the costs of this growth.

In 2005, it started publicly pressing for an increase in the school impact fee.

Only commissioners could approve an increase, and they initially resisted. After sniping between the boards, commissioners in 2006 reluctantly approved an increase — from an average of $196 per home to the current $4,000 per home.

The county, meanwhile, faced mounting pressure to cover its own costs. The state was requiring counties to show they had enough money to pay for roads. Estimates vary between $3-billion and $6-billion as to how much it would cost to improve all of the county's congested roads.

With budgets for both governments getting tighter, school officials say the county started forcing the district to pay for development expenses that are not its responsibility.

The county was essentially saying it would "extort tax dollars" to pay for items the schools have never paid for, School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez said. "It'd be like saying that a fire station has to take care of roads. The only reason the fire station is there is because you have growth."

Tensions boiled over this spring at a $75-million campus under construction in east Hillsborough. The district is building an elementary and high school and eventually plans to open a middle school there, too.

The school district objected to paying for a county-required turn lane at McIntosh Road and U.S. 92, an improvement that costs about $1-million and sits nearly a half-mile from the campus.

But facing class-size requirements, school officials decided they couldn't delay construction. They agreed to the county's conditions "under duress," Gonzalez said. He believes that Florida law only allows the district to pay for infrastructure that is on or contiguous to the campus.

The county maintains that the district is misreading Florida law, and that schools can indeed pay for infrastructure that isn't adjacent to the campus.

Commissioner Jim Norman said he was disappointed that the case ended up in court. He said he wants to work out an arrangement where the county could use a percentage of each school impact fee to pay for these improvements.

"Let's work together and come up with a number," Norman said.

School officials believe the impact fee can only pay for actual school construction and land purchases.

A better way to address the shortfall is to raise the county's separate road impact fee, said Paul Flora, a fiscal analyst with the Hillsborough County Planning Commission. That fee is an average of $1,475 per home. Compared to jurisdictions that charge more — in California, it's as high as $8,000 — Hillsborough's is "ridiculously low," Flora said.

"The average taxpayer doesn't care who pays, be it the county or school district," Flora said. "Either way, it's public money."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or 226-3402. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 226-3400.

Hillsborough, School Board fee feud goes to court 06/22/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 27, 2008 6:53pm]
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