BROOKSVILLE — Faced with an economy that is showing no signs of a quick recovery — and a building and business community looking for help — the Hernando County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to suspend all impact fees for a year.
Commissioners had been planning to talk about a further reduction in the fees, which already had been lowered from $9,200 to $4,862 two years ago for single-family homes. Then Commissioner Wayne Dukes suggested the suspension, turning the discussion in a different direction.
"We're in unique times,'' Dukes said, noting that everyone wants to create jobs and the county is limited as to what it can do to help.
Some in the audience agreed, calling the suspension of fees "a bold move;" others said Hernando was only doing what some other counties already have done, temporarily eliminating fees, which are one-time assessments on new construction to pay for infrastructure needs.
Mark Alexander of Alexander Homes likened the suspension to the use of a defibrillator to restart someone's heart.
"We need that defibrillator,'' Alexander said.
"All this is an effort to try to make an atmosphere where people will invest,'' said business leader Len Tria.
But the idea wasn't universally embraced.
"Gentlemen, you are about to make the biggest political mistake of your lifetime by approving a reduction or elimination of impact fees," said resident Anthony Palmieri. "How can you explain that after you raised the millage rates to balance the budget you are giving away funds for needed infrastructure at the request of a special interest group.''
Commissioner Jeff Stabins asked how the elimination of impact fees would affect the county's recently approved 2011-12 budget. Staffers assured the board that, with impact fees already collected, no planned projects would need to be eliminated, including road, library and public building commitments.
While commissioners acknowledged that the Hernando school district was concerned about the loss of revenue from a suspension of fees, they said the School Board and the Brooksville City Council, which was also opposed to a reduction in fees, could strike out independently to charge higher fees.
During a workshop Tuesday afternoon, the five members of the School Board, along with superintendent Bryan Blavatt, were united in their criticism of the commission's decision.
The revenue from fees levied on residential development is used to build new schools or add capacity at existing ones. The district estimated collecting $300,000 this budget year.
The money, district officials have said, would have been socked away for expansion projects on existing campuses in the coming years since the new Winding Waters K-8 and Weeki Wachee High schools have helped ease the most pressing overcrowding issues.
"We need these funds," member Dianne Bonfield said. "I find it almost unbelievable that the County Commission would reduce the fees to zero, especially in these times."
The board asked its attorney to confirm that the commission didn't violate a state statute that calls for the district to provide input on impact fee rates.
The board also agreed to draft a letter to the commission, emphasizing the financial impact on the district and to consider separating the school portion of the fees so the district can continue to collect.
A discussion about reducing impact fees had been tacked on to a Nov. 8 County Commission workshop agenda. The school district and commission met for a joint workshop earlier that day, but because the impact fee item was a late addition to the agenda, the School Board could not participate in the discussion without violating public notice rules.
Board members expressed frustration that the county did not give them more notice.
"Personally, I don't think the County Commission wanted to involve the School Board," Chairman James Yant said. "If it did, there would have been an invitation."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.