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County puts off impact fees

Hillsborough commissioners want to see what the Legislature does with Gov. Jeb Bush's school spending proposal before confronting the prospect of raising impact fees on new construction to pay for more classrooms.

After hearing appeals from parents and school officials wanting commissioners to raise impact fees, the board voted 4-3 against a proposal to do so immediately.

Instead, commissioners voted by the same margin to delay a decision until after the legislative session closes in May.

Commissioners Kathy Castor, Ken Hagan and Mark Sharpe were on the losing end of both votes.

"From my perspective today, we need to be careful moving forward until we know what comes out of the Legislature," said Commissioner Tom Scott, who served as a co-chairman of a joint task force with the school board, and recommended the delay. "We need to have all the information to make sure we make the right decision and don't need to come back again next year."

Parents with children in overcrowded schools were in the audience, and expressed disappointment afterward, saying officials have examined the issue long enough and the problem is immediate.

"We're finding that we're up against a brick wall," said Ronald Reid, parent of a first- and a fourth-grader at McKitrick Elementary School in Lutz. "We need new schools yesterday."

The school district says it is facing a $390-million shortfall to keep up with school construction needed in the next five years to accommodate an extra 6,000 to 7,000 students arriving annually.

District officials have held several oftentimes acrimonious meetings with county commissioners in an effort to develop a plan to address the situation.

The joint task force recommended a series of measures to address the shortfall - increasing the sales tax by a half-cent, lobbying the legislature for money to pay for the class-size amendment, gradually boosting impact fees, raising real estate documentary stamp charges, and changing school service boundaries. The school board has recently said it will pursue the sales tax hike.

School officials said Wednesday their analysis shows that if Gov. Bush wins approval of $2-billion he is seeking to pay for new schools, Hillsborough would get about $140-million of it.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe argued that, even if the Legislature approves Bush's budget recommendation, that would be a one-time infusion, and it would still fall far short of what's needed in Hillsborough.

He proposed raising the impact fee to $1,000 for each new home built, from its current $196, with a provision to double it later.

In response to concerns raised by Scott and Chairman Jim Norman, he also proposed waiving the fees for developers who build homes deemed affordable to working families.

"If we don't act now, it's going to be that we're the problem," he said.

Scott noted that the task force recommended that commissioners raise impact fees starting in June. With the legislative session running into May, there is still time to meet that timeline after finding out what the Legislature finally will do.

Commissioner Ronda Storms argued that raising impact fees now may color how legislators view a proposal to tie approval of residential construction to school capacity.

Meanwhile, Norman objected to the depiction of the commission as the bad guy in the equation, refusing to pay its fair share.

Unlike the school district, the county is also facing state mandates to pick up part of the cost of the court system and demands that it address traffic congestion, while paying for routine government activities like building parks and paying police and firefighters.

At the same time, he said, the commission has an obligation not to overburden taxpayers and contribute to ever-escalating home costs to the point where people like teachers can't afford a first home.

Developers pass along impact fees to buyers, and the cost can make a difference between whether someone can or can't buy a home.

If there is acrimony in the discussions, it's because of those competing interests, Norman said.

"We care," he said. "The tension is there because we all have a job to do and we want to do it passionately."

Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia noted afterward that impact fees are meant to pay for government costs associated with population growth.

But, she said, the governor's budget proposal is intended to pay only for part of the cost of implementing a limit to class sizes that voters approved as a constitutional amendment, and that is only part of the reason for Hillsborough's classroom crunch.

Elia said she will keep working with the commission to get an impact fee increase when the Legislature is adjourned.

"I hope we'll be successful at the end of the session," she said.