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Hernando commissioners split on expert's bias

Economist Hank Fishkind will advise the commission on the outlook for the nation, state and county.

Economist Hank Fishkind will advise the commission on the outlook for the nation, state and county.

BROOKSVILLE — When the County Commission this week put off the hot-button topic of lowering impact fees, the deciding factor was the desire to have all the pertinent facts on hand before making a decision.

Some of those details are supposed to come next week from a prominent Orlando economist, Hank Fishkind, described by a key county official as "one of the most respected economists related to these issues.''

County commissioner Diane Rowden has a different take on Fishkind.

"This one to me is a no-brainer,'' she said Friday. "It's the fox guarding the henhouse.''

News clips from throughout central Florida indicate that Fishkind is an outspoken opponent of impact fees who has argued against boosting the fees and detailed how they can hinder economic growth.

"From what I've read, this gentleman is a lobbyist for the builders and I don't think that we should put any confidence in the fact that statements he would make would be unbiased,'' Rowden said.

"He already endorses an idea. Tell me how we're going to get an unbiased expert,'' the commissioner said. "I have concerns about why (county business development director) Mike McHugh would not make us aware of this.''

In a 2004 radio presentation, Fishkind stated that impact fees were not the best way to fund public facilities. He said sales taxes or special assessments are better but were "generally not politically acceptable … unfortunately, local governments are increasingly using and raising their impact fees all across Florida.''

At this week's meeting, McHugh told commissioners that Fishkind would be providing an economic update for them at their next meeting, which is Tuesday. He also explained to them that the Pasco Hernando Jobs & Education Regional Board was paying the cost of his visit.

Rowden, who staunchly opposes any plan to cut impact fees, had suggested another economist during Tuesday's meeting but got no support from the rest of the commission.

The impact fee reduction has been touted by local builders and chamber of commerce officials as a way for Hernando County to qualify for a share of a one-time-only $20-million fund to help with affordable housing.

But the discussion at Tuesday's commission meeting focused more on lowering impact fees and other methods of stimulating Hernando County's stalled economy.

Brooksville resident Richard Ross, who urged commissions to not cut the fees, remembered Fishkind from his work on behalf of the controversial Hickory Hills housing development. He said during a presentation, Fishkind put up a slide showing that the housing industry was heading for trouble, then quickly took the slide down again.

"He isn't the expert we need, not someone in the pocket of the developers and Realtors,'' Ross said.

McHugh defended the selection of Fishkind for Tuesday's presentation.

"Dr. Fishkind works for governments and private interests,'' he said. "He is one of the most respected economists related to these issues.''

McHugh said that Fishkind "is not coming here to discuss impact fees. He's here to give the national, state and Hernando County economic outlook.''

He said it would not be unexpected that an economist would say, at some point, that high impact fees can stifle an area's economy. "I don't think you're going to see any predisposition on his part to talk about reducing impact fees,'' McHugh said.

Instead, he said he expects a detailed economic forecast and he said the information should be very useful. "He's meant to be a resource, providing good information for our citizens, our businesses and our county government folks,'' he said.

County Administrator David Hamilton said that he believes that commissioners should always be provided with "all perspectives whenever possible.''

He plans to meet next week with McHugh and Larry Jennings, deputy county administrator, to discuss ways to ensure commissioners get a balanced perspective on the issues related to stimulating Hernando's economy.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando commissioners split on expert's bias 07/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2008 6:29pm]
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