BROOKSVILLE — Eager to explore any possible way to jump-start Hernando County's flagging economy, the County Commission on Tuesday agreed to hold a public hearing in mid July to consider an economic stimulus program.
The program, created by the Florida Legislature earlier this year, would provide access to a $20-million fund for affordable housing.
But there is a substantial catch.
For a county to qualify, it must agree to a reduction in the amount it collects in impact fees, the one-time charge on new construction that helps pay for roads, parks, schools and other infrastructure.
Local business leaders, including the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, urged commissioners to approve the hearing and to back the plan. Citing the fact that the county's economic backbone — construction — has stalled, they argued that the state program would give a much-needed boost to the county's sagging building industry.
Bob Eaton, owner of Artistic Homes in Spring Hill, begged for approval of the plan "so we can put our industry back to work.''
The county staff reported that the county's best shot at participating would be to follow the program provision that requires it to cut impact fees by at least 25 percent across the board for at least 18 months. Based on past collections, the staff estimated that a 25 percent reduction could cost the county $3.6-million from its capital improvement program.
County planning director Ron Pianta pointed out several legal ramifications of reducing impact fees. The fees are supposed to directly relate to the cost of providing additional services for new residents and businesses. Reducing the fees would mean that other funds would have to be found to make up the difference of the cost of the impact of growth.
Pianta also told commissioners that there was no guarantee of how much, if any, of the state's special affordable housing fund Hernando could secure, and he expressed doubt about whether participation would increase access to affordable housing in the county.
County Administrator David Hamilton said he did not plan to recommend any decrease in the county's impact fees to participate in the program.
He said that based on the law of supply and demand, Hernando County has an ample supply of available housing. By allowing the market to correct itself, housing costs are dropping and becoming more affordable, Hamilton said.
He also noted that the county already has existing affordable housing programs.
"We believe the existing programs are meeting the needs of Hernando County,'' Hamilton said.
School superintendent Wayne Alexander also expressed concern about any reduction in impact fees because the district uses those fees to build new schools.
"Obviously this would have a negative impact on the school district,'' Alexander said.
Commissioner Dave Russell suggested that the county could make its 25 percent reduction by cutting a larger percentage out of the transportation impact fee and not touching other fees for schools, public safety, parks and recreation. With recent road construction projects coming in under budget, Russell said, the county might be able to afford to make the fee reduction.
As residents stepped forward to urge the commission to participate in the state program, they voiced concern that there was confusion about various details of the program and asked commissioners to consider a public hearing to be able to clarify what the legislation requires.
"The truth is somewhere in the middle,'' said Morris Porton, co-chairman of the chamber's government affairs committee. He asked for more time to study the idea and the public hearing. "Our businesses are hurting,'' he said.
Commissioner Diane Rowden expressed concern about reducing impact fees, especially since lower fees would put more of the load of paying for growth on existing taxpayers at a time when taxpayers have made it clear that they want lower taxes.
Despite that concern, Rowden agreed she would be willing to listen to the public and additional information from the staff on July 15. The vote for the public hearing was unanimous.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.