TAMPA — Just last year, Hillsborough County officials swore developer contributions for road construction were paying the costs of growth.
Even after a St. Petersburg Times analysis showed that much of the $1 billion the county claimed to have collected from the private sector was exaggerated or nonexistent, officials defended their numbers, insisting developer money was "meeting the county's transportation needs."
But now the Hillsborough official who signed off on last year's rosy synopsis, planning and growth director Peter Aluotto, is calling the county's pay-as-you-go system ineffective. He says the money set aside for roads never matched the projects that were ready for building, making the benefits hard to realize.
Aluotto's belated admission undercuts a key premise of county government over the past decade — that growth is paying for itself. And it comes less than a month after Gov. Charlie Crist signed Senate Bill 360 into law, which promises to usher in a new era for growth management.
So will the new law — which eliminates state requirements that developers pay for road improvements — be better than the one it's replacing? Don't count on it, say residents like Kelly Cornelius.
"The unintended consequences of this bill will create a huge transportation deficit," said Cornelius, a critic of the new law. "The hands of our local government will be tied since they will not be able to use lack of infrastructure as an argument to deny a rezoning."
This much is clear: Weeks after lawmakers transformed growth management in Florida, local and state officials are still scrambling to figure out what the new law will cost and its implications for the future.
"I wish I could give you a straight answer on that," Aluotto said, "but I can't."
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Tom Pelham, who runs Florida's Department of Community Affairs and is Crist's growth management expert, said questions about the new law have been flooding his agency from all parts of the state.
"It's getting to be a real problem," Pelham says of the uncertainty.
The new law is widely considered a boon to development, a major engine for Florida's economy. In addition to giving developers a pass on transportation costs, it extends the life of building permits by two years and steers development to broadly defined areas that in many cases are rural and could lead to more sprawl.
Business groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries lobbied hard for the bill, which they said would remove barriers to development, making countless projects suddenly feasible and serve as an economic stimulus.
By no means is Hillsborough the only place where the changes have befuddled officials who must make it work. But the county is a good example of just how inscrutable the process of regulating growth has become.
Start with the basic issue of how to measure success.
Last year, the Times raised questions about a report that called the county's pay-as-you-go system a success in raising money for roads. A close inspection of the report found contributions that were counted twice or credited to projects that had long been scrapped. Others just didn't add up, like a pledge by one developer for $20.7 million in road fixes, even though that broke down to $3.5 million for each house the developer planned to build.
The county stood by the report's findings, which bolstered a case long made by commissioners that private developers were paying a fair share of the costs associated with growth. Commissioners get most of their campaign contributions from developers, who need their votes to get projects built. If nothing else, the report was good public relations for both camps.
So it was notable last month when Aluotto told commissioners — after Crist had signed the growth management bill into law — that the county's system of extracting money from developers had actually proved to be ineffective.
What developers contribute is seldom helpful because they don't complement road projects the county plans to build, Aluotto said. Instead, this private money gets set aside for roads where development projects are proposed. Almost always, he said, these roads need contributions from other sources before can be built, making them hard — if not impossible — to anticipate.
When the law passed in June, Aluotto said it would replace the county's pay-as-you-go system with a mobility fee, a yet-to-be-determined tax on development that would pay for roads. No one knows yet how the fee would be levied.
Pelham had a different interpretation. The counties that were collecting road contributions from developers could continue to do so. These contributions are just no longer required by the state. So counties like Hillsborough can keep collecting developer contributions as long as commissioners don't eliminate them.
"Home rule is still here in Florida," Pelham said.
After discussing the new law with Pelham in late June, Aluotto said he would revise his assertions to commissioners.
"We didn't get the interpretation right," Aluotto said.
This confusion has left some residents who opposed the law wondering why officials are just now getting acquainted with it.
"Now we're stuck with, 'What is this? What does it mean?' " said Denise Layne, a Lutz homeowner who lobbied against the law during the legislative session. "Where were our Hillsborough guys when this was getting passed?"
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On April 14, as the session was winding down, Cornelius, a Lithia resident who contributes to Creative Loafing's blog on politics, e-mailed commissioners asking why no county lobbyist had publicly spoken out against Senate Bill 360.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe followed up on the question. He said from the beginning he had opposed the bill, and had been disappointed by the mixed messages he was getting from the county staff on it.
"I wasn't sure what the lobbying staff was doing," Sharpe said. "I realized there was confusion. We weren't being clear enough to whoever was drafting the bill and the Governor's Office."
The county's lobbyist, Edith Stewart, said she informally told lawmakers from Hillsborough to oppose it, but didn't do this in a public way that left a record of what she said.
In addition to Stewart and another staff member, a lobbying firm, Smith, Bryan & Myers, was hired by the county. The county pays it $75,000 a year to lobby the Legislature. Its midsession report to the county mentioned numerous bills, but nothing about Senate Bill 360.
One of the firm's other clients is the Florida Chamber of Commerce, a major supporter of the bill. Stewart said she wasn't concerned about this conflict because the firm's lobbyists were supposed to file a disclosure form if they were lobbying on behalf of the chamber, which they didn't do.
The county did write a letter opposing it, but it was dated May 11, after the bill was passed by lawmakers. It was sent to Gov. Crist. It had no effect. Crist signed the bill into law three weeks later.
"If you sit on your hands most of the session, you're telling everyone that you don't find anything wrong with the bill," Layne said. "By the time the county started reacting, it was too late."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3402.