Hernando County commissioners need some help with mathematics. Their five-year road construction plan contains a $104 million hole. Their own budget documents show the impact fee accounts for future road work are at zero. Even if voters approve a new tax referendum in November, the county will have less than $60 million to commit to road construction from the 10-year sales tax increase.
But instead of figuring out how to plug a shortfall nearing $50 million, a commission majority is poised to widen it with still another extension of a moratorium on transportation impact fees. It is irresponsible governing that promotes traffic congestion and pushes the cost of growth onto existing taxpayers — including those who previously paid impact fees.
Sixteen months ago, commissioners agreed, on a 3-2 vote, to again charge a transportation impact fee on new construction, though at the greatly discounted rate of just 44 percent of the amount a consultant recommended. The county is supposed to begin collecting the new fees on Aug. 14. Now Commissioner Nick Nicholson, who has said previously he wants to abolish impact fees, is seeking to push back the start date until sometime next year. His logic? The outcome of the pending sales tax referendum should be known before impact fees are charged (if ever).
Nicholson is clearly tone deaf to the public criticism already aimed at the commission for illogically rejecting a proposed school impact fee earlier this year. His ploy to tie future road fees to the referendum vote reinforces the notion that this board majority cares little about its current residents, smart growth concepts or a sense of fairness. Placating the real estate and home-building industries is a greater priority for Nicholson, and Commissioners David Russell, Wayne Dukes and Jim Adkins who voted down the proposed school fee in March.
It is worth noting a large part of the planned campaign advocating for a higher sales tax is being underwritten by the real estate industry courtesy of a $50,000 contribution from the National Board of Realtors. However, the sales tax referendum should stand on its own merits and Nicholson is wrong to mix it with restarting impact fees — the onetime charges on new construction to ensure growth helps pay for the public service demands it creates.
Despite protests to the contrary, the modest impact fee of $2,537 per new single-family will not stifle the residential construction industry. The fee is less than 30 percent of what people pay in portions of neighboring Pasco County and it is the equivalent of just $7.05 of monthly principal on a 30-year mortgage. Leaving the fee at zero, where it has stood since 2011 as a failed economic stimulus, is an absurd discount of the true transportation costs of growth, calculated by a county-retained consultant at $5,767 per single-family home.
That consultant and county staffers have urged the commission to adopt a balanced set of revenues to fund transportation — hence the sales tax referendum to complement the impact fee and existing gasoline taxes. Only Commissioner Diane Rowden has grasped this concept. The rest have displayed an eager willingness to continue an imbalance favoring the real estate industry.
Commissioners are scheduled to consider Nicholson's request next week. They should scrap his idea, allow the county to begin collecting the discounted road impact fees and try to restore a sense of balance between special interests and the public's best interest.