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Arguments against school impact fees don't add up

Hernando builders and a stagnant industry can get our sympathy, but the continued waiver of impact fees is a problem for county schools.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Hernando builders and a stagnant industry can get our sympathy, but the continued waiver of impact fees is a problem for county schools.

Maybe you've heard that the Hernando County building industry is finally starting to crawl out of its hole.

Maybe you're encouraged by the news that the number of home-building permits issued in Hernando last year climbed to 239, the most since 2008.

Don't be, says Bob Eaton, owner of Artistic Homes.

Take out the houses built by big players on speculation or for investors, and it leaves just a few dozen put up by local companies like his.

"What it shows is just how bad the market for new-home construction is," Eaton said.

There's no better example of this than Royal Coachman Homes. It built about 150 homes a year during the peak of the boom and 80 to 90 homes in the years leading up to it, said Mary Mazzuco, co-owner of the company and president of the Hernando Builders Association.

And now?

"We haven't built a house in almost four years," she said.

This is all to say that, when it comes to the proposed school impact fees that county commissioners are scheduled to vote on Feb. 11, I can see why builders are complaining. I'd probably complain, too.

But is their real problem impact fees?

And is continuing the suspension of these fees the right way to help?

Yes, builders said at a recent meeting with a school system staffer and the consultants who calculated the new school impact fees.

The fees will be slightly above or below $7,000, depending on whether the School Board and voters agree to renew a half-cent sales tax; $7,000 is more than the amount charged by all but three of 22 other Florida counties in the consultant's study, and far higher than any neighboring counties.

That cuts into Hernando's traditional advantage — home prices — about the only advantage it has, Eaton said.

It's difficult to sell buyers on a county riddled with sinkholes and rife with foreclosed properties. Worst of all, he said, "we don't have any job creation."

Okay, but the biggest obstacle to attracting enterprise, we've heard for years, is the low skill and education levels of the Hernando workforce.

Turning that around requires education. And when it comes to drawing working-age home buyers, nothing tops quality schools.

Which means that investing in them is good for the building business; making Hernando a good place to live is, long term, the only way out of this hole.

Builders know we need good schools, they said at the meeting. They just want the money to come from somewhere else.

The problem is, county schools face $223 million in "unfunded critical needs" over the next decade, and they can't cover the entire amount without collecting fees.

More to the point, the schools should collect these fees. They are the calculated, actual cost, the fair share, of each home built, the consultants said. If school fees are lower in other counties, it's not because Hernando is soaking builders; it's because, among other factors, many other counties haven't updated their fees in years.

One other thing. Royal Coachman's home-building drought coincides pretty closely with the period of impact fee cuts in Hernando. To me, it looks like an experiment that didn't work out.

So, yes, I understand where the builders are coming from. I just don't agree with them.

Arguments against school impact fees don't add up 01/28/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 6:47pm]
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