BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School District will have to wait a while longer to get financial help through school impact fees.
After another plea from school officials, a majority of the County Commission voted Tuesday to keep the fees at zero until at least May 2015, citing concerns that restoring the fees now would hurt the building industry.
School officials recently received an updated impact fee report, including a business plan. That report recommends a school impact fee of approximately $7,000 for a single-family home. 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.
The old impact fee was $4,266.
School impact fees have been suspended since November 2011 and that has cost the school district more than $3 million. With money that would otherwise be spent on facility maintenance going to debt service, school facilities are in need of help, officials told the commission.
The consultant who examined the schools' needs drew up a plan for the next 10 years. It includes $30 million to build one new school, $10 million for technology, $133 million for maintenance and reconstruction, and nearly $110 million to pay off old debt.
"Why are you putting us last?'' asked Jo Ann Hartge, president of the Hernando County Classroom Teachers. "We can't afford to wait any longer.''
School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino said he didn't understand why he had "to come here and plead?''
He said that the county keeps selling itself as a cheap place to live and that is not the notion that the community should push. "We cannot keep doing this to our children,'' he said.
Superintendent Lori Romano said the impact fee funding was "of vital importance'' and noted that future county employers are going to need an educated workforce. "There is no substitute,'' she said, "to a quality K-12 education experience.''
Romano told commissioners, "I suggest that you place a higher priority on schools.''
But area builders and realtors said the fee would hurt the small boost they are beginning to see in business.
Chris Glover of Palmwood Construction argued that the building industry has seen the worst downturn ever in recent years. While he said he wasn't totally against the fee, he thought "it needs to be reasonable.''
Bob Eaton of Artistic Homes called the years-long downturn a "horrendous depression'' and argued that permit numbers indicate that the suspension of the fees has had a positive affect on home building. Since 2011, permit numbers have increased by nearly 100 percent.
Despite that, "it's still a very dire situation.''
Builders said they are hurt enough by the county recently reinstituting fees of about $1,387 for public safety, parks and libraries. The county plans to start charging a transportation impact fee of $2,537 in August.
Local commission watchers also took both sides of the argument. Pat and Shirley Miketinac both opposed the fees, saying they haven't impacted the system by having children in the local schools and that the School District wastes money.
Anthony Palmieri urged the commission to put the school fees back in place. He said commissioners appear to be listening to "the special interests, the people who contribute to your campaign funds.''
"We are sick and tired of this board pandering to the building community,'' said Richard Ross who urged commissioners to think of the taxpayers who are the largest group of their constituents.
Commissioner Dave Russell said he appreciated that the School District needed money, but he also said that he believes builders would take a bigger hit from the fees revival than the School District would receive a benefit.
Diane Rowden was the only commissioner to vote against keeping the impact fees zeroed out for another year. By leaving the fee at zero, she said "the taxpayers of the county are left holding the bag'' because they will pay for any growth impact.
"I just don't think we're seeing the big picture here,'' Rowden said. "We're being irresponsible to the taxpayers. We're being irresponsible to our School District.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.