The rush to suspend Hernando County's impact fees on all construction is a shortsighted scheme allowing desperate commissioners to curry favor with an influential special interest.
The commission's concern over Hernando's unemployment rate of 13 percent is understandable, a number that is exacerbated by the county's traditional reliance on home building as its economic engine. When the real estate bubble burst, so too did jobs in the construction trades and ancillary service industries.
But, the decision to try again to jump start new-home construction — after similar attempts the past two years failed — by eliminating impact fees of nearly $5,000 per home is not a serious strategy for improving the job market. It will, however, improve the potential for a better bottom line for local builders.
The rash action is based on bogus reasoning — statements that everybody else has done this already and Hernando County needs to remain competitive. Bunk. Only Commissioner John Druzbick called the builders on that erroneous information, pointing out that Hernando's neighboring counties all had fees — one-time charges on new construction to pay for roads, schools and other infrastructure — equal to or greater than Hernando's assessment. His resolve, however, wilted, and he joined a unanimous vote.
Killing the fee — without consulting with the Hernando School Board — leaves schools, roads, libraries and other public infrastructure without a year's worth of capital funding. While the immediate impact won't be felt in 2012, the misguided maneuver increases the potential for the county to dip into its general fund to pay for future capital costs. In other words, existing property taxpayers will be subsidizing the cost of growth from new construction.
A commission truly concerned with improving its economy should have shifted its focus from single-family homes to a more exclusive sector — industrial space and professional offices. Waiving fees there demonstrates the commission is interested in trying to lure permanent, high-wage jobs, not more temporary construction work. But the most likely byproduct of this decision is a financial perk to builders for the 12 months preceding the next election.
Two days after the reckless vote, commissioners sat in a workshop and heard more legitimate methods of improving the county's job recruitment: An adult job training site; additional spec buildings to show potential tenants; a ready-to-build industrial site already equipped with water, sewer and electrical service; a renourished savings account to finance economic incentives; and high-caliber quality of life amenities that will attract people 35 and younger to be a part of Hernando County's workforce.
None of these are free. A 25,000-square-foot spec building at the airport industrial park carries a $2 million price tag. The reserve account for incentives is $500,000 and falling. And the commission has been cutting spending on amenities like parks and libraries, not enhancing them.
Two hours into the workshop, business development manager Mike McHugh told commissioners, "You just can't keep going forward with what we have and expect different results.''
Indeed. Hernando commissioners must give serious consideration to a wide-ranging menu of investments in their economy beyond giveaways for the home builders.