Sunday, May 20, 2018
Education

Without impact fees, Hernando schools left with heavy burden

BROOKSVILLE — Look no further than Westside Elementary School to better understand the looming financial burdens of the Hernando County School District.

The school, part of which was built in 1972, is outdated and falling into disrepair.

With roofing that leaks in multiple places, water pools in some light fixtures and stains the acoustic tiling. This past summer, part of the ceiling collapsed. It needs to be replaced, the district says — along with the heating and air-conditioning units that sit on the school's roof.

The estimated cost: $2.7 million.

But that's just one of many issues at the school.

Inadequate rainwater management results in standing water outside of the building's three primary entrances. The exterior walls do not meet building code requirements for wind load. The restrooms do not meet accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It's an aging building," said Sean Arnold, the district's maintenance manager. "It could be fixed, but you have to have the money to fix it."

District officials say that is just the issue.

With mounting maintenance needs at schools across the county, much of the funding goes to pay debt service, leaving little money for renovation, repairs and maintenance and other capital needs. Every year, the district is forced to defer significant maintenance needs and is unable to update its technology.

Arnold says a district of this size should be spending about $8 million a year to maintain the buildings. He said his department spends closer to $2 million. His budget has shrunk every year since he took over in 2009.

Deferring maintenance leads to bigger and costlier projects, district officials say.

"Every year that you go and don't do it again, it gets worse," said superintendent Lori Romano. "You only can patch the hole so many times before it's in disrepair."

State funds for capital needs, known as Public Education Capital Outlay or PECO, have long since dried up. And the financial picture isn't getting any brighter.

Last week, the Hernando County Commission rejected the district's pleas to restore the educational impact fee, vetoing a potentially lucrative source of money for at least another year.

The district had already lost at least $2.1 million since 2009 due to the discounting or elimination of the fees.

The impact fees, a one-time charge on new construction, were expected to generate an estimated $61.2 million in the next 10 years, according to the newest impact fee study.

Not having that money will be a huge impact, Romano said.

"We will not have what we need to do maintenance and repairs on our school buildings," she said.

Officials have argued that the funds would help pay off millions in bonding debt the district incurred a decade ago when it was scrambling to build classrooms to keep up with growth.

Facilities director Roland "Bo" Bavota was even more adamant about the loss of the fees on the schools.

"It'll be severe," he said. "It's going to be severe."

George Gall, the district's chief financial officer, says the district has an estimated $217 million in capital needs in the next five years. Of that, $53 million will be used for debt service — debt the district incurred to build schools.

Over that same period, the district expects to bring in only about $77 million, including $32 million from a half-cent sales tax, which must be approved by voters later this year.

The deficit: $140 million.

That includes millions for debt service, roofs, heating and air conditioning, life safety and classroom technology.

The School Board has limited options for new revenue streams, Romano said.

One option: increasing the millage rate.

"It's a direct impact on the taxpayers, instead of the builders and the Realtors who the county chose to support," Romano said.

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

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