Hernando's homebuilders want somebody else to pay for schools. Anybody else. Just not their customers. In trying to reverse the logic that new growth should help pay for the services it demands, builders are calling for ambiguous alternative funding sources for education construction. It's become the customary response whenever the topic is impact fees, as it was last week when school district officials briefed builders and real estate agents on a proposed impact fee of nearly $7,000 per single-family home.
Granted, it's pricey, a 63 percent jump over the fee that had been in place until 2009. But it also is realistic based on the cost of acquiring land and building student learning stations. Meanwhile, the proposed fee formula does gives builders and their customers a pass on an imperative point: The district missed out on $2.2 million in impact fee revenue between 2009 and 2013 when the county commission initially discounted, then reduced the fee to zero in a failed economic stimulus for the residential construction industry.
At the new recommended amount, impact fees are projected to raise $61 million over 10 years to finance a $223 million capital plan that includes $30 million for new classrooms, $10 million for technology, $73 million in maintenance and $110 million in debt for past school construction. Besides the impact fee, the district financing plan also calls for extending the half-cent sales tax — set to expire at the end of the year — to raise $78 million, using property taxes to cover another $90 million. In other words, the district is looking at all available resources.
The builders association pitched the notion of using documentary stamps, but it is an impractical alternative. It would require action in Tallahassee, where lawmakers have declined to give construction money to school districts for each of the past three years, and acquiescence from the Realtors' lobby which traditionally opposes tinkering with the tax charged on real estate transactions.
Without the impact fee, the district faces the likelihood of forgoing maintenance and allowing existing schools to fall into disrepair or putting a greater financial burden on property owners with a higher ad valorem tax rate. It's simply unfair to shift the cost of new classrooms to existing homeowners, particularly those who previously paid an impact fee.
Commissioners have been more than generous to the building and development industry for the past several years by waiving and reducing all impact fees and simultaneously granting continued moratoriums on projects already in the works. And, contrary to a common argument, the new fee will not put Hernando homebuilders at a competitive disadvantage. For the past three years, neighboring Pasco County has charged approximately $12,000 in impact fees for each new home, including nearly $5,000 for school construction. Its homebuilding industry far outpaces Hernando's.
The real competitive disadvantage looms for people trying to market new homes in a county that refuses to invest in its schools.