Sunday, November 19, 2017
Education

Pasco committee recommends school impact fee increase tied to sales tax hike

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LAND O'LAKES — The question never was whether a committee of Pasco County builders and parents would back higher school impact fees for new homes.

The need, they said, was clear.

The issue as the panel debated the fee Wednesday was how much the increase would be, and if it would provide enough revenue on its own.

School Board members had proposed a near doubling of the charge, from $4,828 per single-family home to $9,028. Their goal: to generate money to build new schools made necessary by the onslaught of new home construction.

Committee members observed that the fee increase alone would still not meet the district's demands. And they further worried that the School Board might not have the political will to seek other solutions.

Hoping to generate some "incentive" to act, as committee chairman Stew Gibbons put it, the group split the difference.

It recommended that the County Commission raise the impact fee by $2,300, on average, as soon as possible, with an automatic increase of another $1,850, on average, when the School Board votes to place a new sales tax referendum before voters. The increases would be an average because the panel proposed setting rates based on square footage, which is not done currently.

If the sales tax passes, the fee would go down to reflect a credit for the amount the tax would generate. If it fails, the fee would remain at the higher level.

"We as a committee need to make it emphatically clear in our recommendation that, while we are considering an increase in impact fees, these other sources are critically important," said committee member Scott Sheridan of the Wiregrass Ranch development.

The vote came after a failed separate motion to impose the fee as the board requested.

Parents who attended the meeting as observers shook their heads in disbelief as the committee sought to tie the full fee to a new tax.

"For the builders to balk at a $4,000 immediate increase was ridiculous," said Claudine Judge of Wesley Chapel. "The problem is not the sales tax. The problem is the building that is being allowed to be built" without enough school capacity.

She suggested a sales tax referendum would have "no chance" of passage.

Even committee member Nicole Lewis, a parent representative who backed the proposal, acknowledged as much.

"Most people don't want to pay more sales tax," Lewis told the committee before it voted. "They want new homes to pay for that fee. That's where the new (enrollment) growth is coming from."

Several schools already stand well above 100 percent of their capacity, which prompted the School Board to redraw attendance zones for the coming academic year.

At the same time, district officials have projected enrollment from new housing units to reach about 16,000 students over the next decade, requiring at least four more schools.

The fees to help cover the costs have remained flat for nearly a decade.

Over the past 15 years, impact fees brought in $138 million, a fraction of the $642 million spent supporting 32 schools and additions.

Meanwhile, the district's other resources that pay for school construction have been reduced, and much of what comes in is tied up in past projects. District officials have suggested the most straightforward way to increase the revenue is to raise the impact fee.

A 0.25 percent sales tax could generate another $176 million over a decade, according to school district projections.

School Board members so far have shown little interest in taxing current residents to build schools that wouldn't be needed without the new homes.

"I can't find a single current resident of Pasco County, or taxpayer, that favors that idea," Chairman Allen Altman said.

County Commission Chairman Mike Moore told his Twitter followers that he also does not support a tax increase.

The County Commission has the final say on the impact fee. It is scheduled to hold a workshop on the committee recommendation on May 2.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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