BROOKSVILLE — The price could be rising soon on all kinds of home improvement projects as the County Commission next week considers a new permit fee schedule on work ranging from reroofing to installing a water heater.
County officials say the higher fees are needed to help Hernando County's building department, which processes those permits, pay for itself.
Among the changes would be an increase from $50 to $85 in basic fees for above-ground pools, nonstructural aluminum work and residential lawn sprinklers. On the next tier of permits that now cost $100, the fee would increase to $135. Those types of projects include in-ground spas, retaining walls, boat lifts and carports.
Other fees, such as for a new garage, would rise from $150 to $200. And mobile home or park model setup fees that are now $300 would increase to $325 under the proposal.
An analysis comparing building department activities with the costs of permit processing showed that fees for single-family residential permits and new commercial structure permits were sufficient to pay for themselves. But accessory-type permits from things like from swimming pool installation and new screen rooms did not.
The county's building department is a standalone "enterprise fund'' that must pay for itself. In large part because of the stalling of the home building industry, the department has seen drastic personnel cuts and a reduced work schedule in recent years with the staff shrinking from about 90 in the boom to 23 today on a 35-hour workweek.
At some point, the staff cannot reduce any further because the county must maintain staff with all the building skills necessary to service permits ranging from the recent expansion at Oak Hill Hospital to a simple garage construction, said Michael McHugh, the county's business development director.
The building department has been using its reserves to service these permits and "these reserves are now reaching critically low levels,'' according to a memo to county commissioners.
"We've been operating in fiscal distress,'' McHugh said. "The objective here is to break even.''
The move is supported by the Hernando County Builders Association.
The building department has to raise enough money to do its job, said Bob Eaton, who chairs the association's government affairs committee. The home builders have "essentially been subsidizing these'' smaller jobs for years. Now that home building is off, the accessory permits for home improvements, which are typical in a maturing housing area, are the bulk of what the building department is doing, Eaton said.
While building is slow, the home improvement business is not. The office still services 800 permits a month.
"We still have work to do,'' he said. "People think we're over there (idling) like the Maytag repairman but it's not like that.''
Eaton said the update is overdue.
The last changes to the permit fees were in 2002 and 2003, and when the county adopted the new building code in 2007, it adopted a code that required the building department to do more work, such as more inspections.
"For $50, I can't afford to go out to a job site three times,'' McHugh said.
Commissioners will be asked to make a series of revisions in the permit fee schedule, some designed to update the schedule because of new building codes; other are changes in conditions since the last update and to increase fees so the permitting pays for itself.
Accessory improvements to commercial establishments would also see some permit fee increases. Those sorts of fee increases concern County Commissioner Jim Adkins. He said he would see fee increases as "a last resort.''
"I'd like to see some other ways of doing something than passing it along to the people,'' he said, noting that while the increases are nominal, it's unclear when someone might just decide to not do a home improvement project because it's going to cost more.
William Chaney, president of Accent Aluminum Construction Inc. in Brooksville, is a good customer at the building department, pulling 30 to 40 permits a week during the boom and about a tenth of that now. He appreciates the service he gets from the staff there.
"We don't need anything hindering work,'' he said. "And obviously none of us want more cost passed onto our customers.''
But he noted that Hernando County is still the cheapest place to pull permits among the five counties where he works, and so he understood if this is what must be done for the building department to break even.
"I'd rather see them raise their fee than not be able to function the way we need them to,'' Chaney said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.