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TAMPA — Normally one who celebrates the free market, Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman sounded like a Gloomy Gus during a June 19 budget hearing.
Things were so bad, Norman told his colleagues, that "there's no building, there's no construction, there's nothing going on." To back up this dour claim, he said development had dropped between "80 percent to 90 percent."
Norman had a point to make with his stat. Why not cut the county staff that reviews development applications by a commensurate percentage? After all, shouldn't the size of the county staff reflect "real world" conditions?
But just how real is Norman's figure?
When asked by PolitiFact where he got his percentages, Norman said he read it in a newspaper. He couldn't recall which one, but said it was in the last 30 days. During the budget workshop, Norman said he read a story that said Pasco County had a 98 percent drop in construction.
Did Norman base his Hillsborough figures on this article about Pasco?
Norman said he took the article and "backed it down to 80 percent" for Hillsborough. He said he felt comfortable making this calibration because of his experience following development as a commissioner.
But county figures don't support Norman's claim.
A comparison of construction permits issued in the first quarter of 2008 to the same period last year shows a total decline of 52 percent. Residential permits dropped 54 percent. Commercial permits fell by 27 percent. Bad? You bet. As bad as what Norman said? Not even close.
Apartment permits fell from 946 to 136 this year, a decline of about 86 percent. But Norman didn't say he was talking about only apartment construction. No other category matched that decline.
Maybe Norman was referring to the number of applications filed when developers want to change the county's growth plan to make way for a project.
In that case, the county saw a decline of about 22 percent.
Because he didn't explain what time frame he was talking about during the budget conference, maybe Norman was comparing 2008 to the boom years, not last year. If that's the case, then county figures come close to reflecting a drop of at least 80 percent. The county issued 74 percent more residential permits in 2005 and 76 percent more residential permits in 2006. But when asked by PolitiFact what time period he was comparing to 2008, Norman said he was referring to last year.
Later, however, an assistant, Ben Kelly, e-mailed figures from MetroStudy, a housing tracking and consulting company. These statistics showed housing starts, when developers actually begin the foundation of a home, since 2004. Even these figures show only a 43 percent drop to 2007.
Norman's claim is supported only when the first quarter of 2008 is compared with the second quarter of 2006 — the peak of the housing boom. Under this scenario, housing starts fall 83 percent when compared with 2008.
This comparison, Kelly said, was what Norman was referring to at the budget hearing.
At the June 19 meeting, Norman did ask the county staff to calculate more precise estimates of how much development has dropped. But he had already mentioned five times — over two separate meetings — that development was down 80 percent.
"If I'm wrong by 10 percent to 20 percent, then cut 50 to 60 percent (of the county staff), not 80," Norman told PolitiFact. "Whatever you can quantify, our construction is down. And my main point was, we shouldn't have staff do fluff jobs waiting for the market to come back."
While the premise of Norman's overall argument has merit, it doesn't help that county numbers don't reflect the figures he's quoting. Only a carefully selected housing start figure, dusted off from 2006 and representing the most extreme development period since 2004, supports his oft-repeated statement.
For this reason, we find his claim Barely True.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or [email protected]