BROOKSVILLE — Faced with a virtual standstill in their industry — one that has long bolstered Hernando County's economy — local home builders hope the County Commission can provide them with a stimulus package they say they need to get back on their feet.
The builders and related businesses have pitched an idea to enact a moratorium on residential impact fees for the next year and a 50 percent reduction in the current fees for a second year.
The move, which will get its first public airing in a workshop Tuesday, would jump-start home building, creating jobs that Hernando County desperately needs. That's the argument by Bob Eaton of Artistic Homes Enterprises, chairman of the builders' government affairs committee, and others supporting the moratorium.
By saving home buyers the $9,137 that comprises the typical single-family residential impact fee, some potential buyers who have been sitting on the fence will now have an incentive to build, Eaton argues.
For a builder like Eaton, who has been in the county for 31 years, even that little bit would help as he realizes that he has stretched his business as thin as he can and, within a few months, will have to let go his entire staff except for one other associate if something doesn't turn around.
Impact fees are charged up front on new construction to pay for infrastructure, including new schools, roads and public facilities.
Eaton said builders won't fight against the need for impact fees because they see how the infrastructure that the fees build can make the community a more attractive place "in normal times."
"But what we have right now is an absolute crisis," he said. "Right now we have a building industry that is almost shut down."
Eaton acknowledges that the local market has a surplus of existing homes, many of them in foreclosure. But those homes are beginning to move off the market as investors and others take advantage of the rock-bottom prices, he said.
In addition, he said, some government programs, such as the Neighborhood Stabilization Program just getting off the ground in Hernando, are specifically designed to address those homes.
"A lot of the government programs are being geared toward that," Eaton said.
The impact fee relief, he said, is geared more to the people who don't want to buy into the foreclosures. Instead, they've been holding on for a new home, and a reduced cost can entice them into that purchase.
"And if you begin to build again, you can start stabilizing existing home values," Eaton said.
Builders' complaints with the impact fees are based somewhat on what he considers "gray areas." While there are rules about how much can be charged, how spending priorities are set and how the money is tracked, he said he isn't sure whether county commissioners have ever paid much attention to those details.
Materials in their packets for Tuesday include a lot of that detail, and Eaton said he looks forward to a discussion of those issues.
The material includes a district-by-district breakdown of how much the county has in each of its impact fee funds and how much is projected to be collected over the next several years. Also on the lists are the major projects proposed, using the impact fee money, and their timelines for completion.
Another chart lists what other communities have done with their impact fees to spur building, and there is a column on what those efforts have produced. According to most of the listings, the changes have brought no significant home-building activity.
Eaton, however, said he was suspicious of those findings. He said he wasn't sure the county staff always gave commissioners the full picture. And he also noted that sometimes it takes a few months for new programs, including impact fee reductions, to catch on.
"Nothing turns on a dime," he said.
The majority of the Hernando School Board gave a pat of support to the impact fee reduction proponents last week as the board voted 4-1 to go with some sort of fee cut.
In another related development, commissioners are also expected to consider on Tuesday a proposal that would allow nonresidential construction to defer payment of impact fees for up to three years for industrial or commercial projects topping $25,000 in value.
For Eaton, the key is to find an incentive that will make people want to build new homes again and then use that momentum to move Hernando County out of its building doldrums.
"So much of it is about attitude," he said. "If we could just get things started again, then it would keep moving forward. But if it's left to its own devices, then I know that there is no impetus for people to start buying."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.