NEW PORT RICHEY
In a stunning reversal, Pasco County commissioners on Tuesday voted against cutting special fees on homes that help pay for new schools.
The 3-2 vote to leave the $4,800-per-home impact fee unchanged came after a two-hour public hearing where dozens of people lobbied the board against the cuts. The move also followed two weeks of increasingly heated rhetoric between the school district and homebuilders.
"In light of the way this has come about, the way it's evolved, I'm just not comfortable pushing it forward," said Commissioner Jack Mariano, who had been the self-described "public face" of cutting impact fees. "It's just bad government. I just couldn't do that to the people."
Along with Mariano, Commissioners Ted Schrader and Ann Hildebrand voted to keep the current fee. Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Henry Wilson voted to cut the school fee in half until the end of 2012.
In explaining his reversal, Mariano said the move still made economic sense, but that doing so might leave a bad taste for many in the community.
"It just wasn't done the right way," he said. "The School Board has got its own struggles. I didn't want to put any more complexities on it."
Mariano said he was still supportive of the cuts as he made a presentation Tuesday afternoon explaining how they would help revive the economy. But he said he changed his mind as dozens of residents spoke against the move.
Someone who made a particularly good point, he said, was Pam Mooney of Odessa. The mother of two noted that she moved to Pasco for two reasons: good schools and low property taxes.
"People are going to move for reasons they're passionate about, not because you're targeting impact fees," she said.
Another turning point came Friday when developer Jim Deitch exchanged e-mails with school officials. One message he sent to school superintendent Heather Fiorentino was particularly tough.
"I would suggest you strike a deal between now and Monday," he wrote. "Because if you show up in force to fight this on Tuesday all gloves are off and we are going line item by line item.
He continued: "Ms. Fiorentino when I used the word illegal I wasn't being loose with the word. There are serious issues with your accounting."
Deitch was at the meeting Tuesday but did not speak.
Schrader said messages like those "quite frankly is what really turned me not to support" the cuts. Hildebrand said she mulled the vote all weekend and that the public perception of commissioners and the School Board at odds was unhealthy.
Two weeks ago, the School Board unanimously passed a resolution against the cuts and several members urged teachers and parents to lobby commissioners.
Tuesday's vote leaves the school fee intact, but commissioners previously sliced more than $6,000 off the $16,900 in total fees on an average new home. Most of those cuts will expire in 2013. The cut to the transportation impact fee is permanent, as the county plans to develop a new "mobility fee" to pay for roads.
Commissioners rejected a proposal that included sweeteners for the school district, requiring developers to actually build homes by a certain date to get the lower fees and requiring four of five commissioners to extend the cuts.
Newly elected Commissioner Wilson said he lost sleep over his decision. With those tweaks, he said a 50 percent cut allowed him to meet two key campaign promises.
"What I said on the trail to get me here was to lower impact fees, but I also said to listen to the people," he said. "Now I've got lowering the impact fees, but I've also got listening to the people."
Most of the jam-packed board room was shocked by the vote. One vocal critic had predicted a unanimous commission would enact the cut, and even longtime staffers who know the commissioners well said they couldn't predict how the vote would go.
As a visibly relieved Fiorentino left the meeting, she said she understands the pain of construction workers, many of whom are parents of schoolchildren. She also said the vote still leaves the district with a $60 million shortfall that likely will translate to layoffs.
"It gives us the ability to realize we haven't lost as much as we could have," she said.
Impact fees can only pay to build new schools and related capital costs, but officials warned that cutting the fees could force the district to dip into revenue set aside for operations and salaries. A 50 percent cut would have taken about $4 million from the district over two years.
Developer Lew Friedland, who had been a leader in lobbying for the cut, was clearly disappointed. He said commissioners likely changed their mind because of the "misinformation" that cutting impact fees could lead to teachers losing their jobs.
"And I think that's unfortunate," he said.