BROOKSVILLE — Hoping to breathe life into the flagging building industry, the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday seemed poised to cut residential impact fees in half for a year, and possibly longer.
Under a proposal that will move to a public hearing and more discussion early next month, commissioners agreed to consider a drop in the average fee back to 2001-04 levels — roughly $4,800. That compares to the current single-family residential impact fee of about $9,200.
Local builders have been pushing for a one-year moratorium on the fees, followed by another year of a 50 percent reduction, in order to jump-start home building and related businesses.
"We're trying to put the people of Hernando County in the construction trades back to work,'' Bob Eaton, a local home builder and government liaison for the Hernando Builders Association, told the commission.
Eaton argued that, with home building nearly at a standstill, the county would not lose much money by waiving the fees for a short period of time, but that the reduction in price might be enough to convince some people on the fence to build a home.
While Eaton acknowledged there was no proof that the effort would work — and indeed examples of other places where the fee reduction has resulted in only a small increase in building activity — he said he was confident the fee reduction is what Hernando County needs.
"It can and will make a difference,'' he said.
Local Realtor Gary Schraut urged commissioners to think of the faces of their friends and neighbors because they would be the people who would benefit from an impact fee moratorium and an uptick in home building.
"They don't need a handout. They just need an opportunity to go back to work,'' Schraut said.
By getting new homes moving through the market, he said, it would firm up the housing market and home values.
"This is not the cure-all,'' he said. "This is one tool in the 30-tool toolbox.''
Commissioner Jeff Stabins voiced support for the idea of doing something to help the building industry, but pitched an expansion of the program he proposed last year that has been using state housing money to fix up the homes of lower-income residents.
Stabins wanted to see that program expanded to tear down homes in bad shape and rebuild them using local builders. Those kinds of projects do not require an impact fee, he said.
"We know it's not the answer, but we do need to do something,'' Commissioner John Druzbick said of Eaton's proposal.
He said he agreed that impact fees aren't coming in the way they used to, but foreclosures and unemployment continue to rise. His primary concern was that the county find a way, at the very least, to charge impact fees as part of a homeowner's mortgage rather than making builders pay up front.
Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings pointed out that Druzbick's idea had been explored before and that there were two issues. One was whether the fee could be put on the tax rolls. The other was past problems with collecting impact fees when they weren't paid up front.
Assistant county attorney Jeff Kirk expressed several concerns about how the fees could be tacked on to bills and what the law says about the nature of impact fees, as opposed to special assessments, which can be part of a tax bill.
Commission Chairman David Russell suggested the compromise — rolling back the fees to 2001-04 levels rather than a moratorium.
He said that since the county was trying to reduce spending to about 2005 levels to match revenue, it makes sense to do the same with impact fees. Less impact fee revenue is needed, he said, because county projects are costing less these days.
Russell also supported the idea of getting the fee built into the tax bill or mortgage, if a homeowner chose to go that route. Russell urged the county attorney's office to look for a creative way to accomplish that.
And while builders and related business owners in the audience were still asking why not a moratorium rather than a reduction, Russell said he was worried about sending the right message to the Florida Department of Transportation.
The state wants to see local communities make an effort to help pay for their road projects. "They might not say it, but it will be taken into account'' when the state gives out long-term road money, Russell said.
In a related action, commissioners agreed to set a public hearing for November for an ordinance that would allow commercial and industrial developments topping $25,000 to defer paying impact fees for up to three years. Business development staffers assured commissioners that there would be a system to ensure that the fees are paid since collections have been an issue in the past.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.