BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission postponed a decision Tuesday on increasing the fee it charges for every newly built home, which is meant to help schools keep up with population growth.
The so-called impact fees pay for roads and public buildings for the county and for new classroom space for the school district. The topic has become more important to Hernando County School Board members recently, as they’ve realized that the district may need more student capacity to keep up with the many new housing developments approved by the county. They asked commissioners to approve a school impact fee of more than $6,500 — about three times what it is now — as recommended in a report earlier this year by an outside consultant.
School Board chairwoman Susan Duval was in full support. She referenced her five decades of work in the school district and argued that inaction by previous commissions had forced the School Board to make what sounds like a big request.
“We didn’t create this, but we are the recipients of these types of actions,” she said. “It’s caught up with us.”
The school impact fee for Hernando County is $2,133 for a single-family home. The commission suspended the school impact fee in 2011 in an effort to stimulate the struggling economy. It was raised back to the current rate in 2016.
Hernando County’s school impact fee is less than a third of the fee in nearby Pasco County, which is $7,100.
The School Board has a balance of about $6 million in its impact fee fund, superintendent John Stratton said Tuesday. Earlier this year, school district planning manager Jim Lipsey estimated that balance would grow to $10 million in the next three years if there’s no change.
The district is out of capacity for elementary school students and will need more room soon. Stratton said he hopes to add to existing schools first and delay building a new school, which will be needed eventually. District officials have pointed to Pasco County for cost baselines: A recent eight-classroom expansion there cost $7.5 million, while that district’s two most recent elementary schools each cost more than $20 million.
Some Hernando County commissioners on Tuesday outright opposed the idea of increasing the school impact fee. Commissioner Steve Champion urged the School Board to look for ways to keep other costs low, instead, and try to save money to build new classrooms. He added that boosting impact fees would raise a public uproar on the heels of a recent hike in Hernando County property tax rates.
Impact fees don’t affect current residents — as chairman Jeff Holcomb reminded the rest of the commission — but both Champion and Commissioner Wayne Dukes equated them to taxes, with Dukes calling a decision to increase impact fees “almost like suicide.”
“We keep going into (the public’s) pocket, and there’s never enough,” Champion said.
Commissioner John Allocco preferred incremental increases over several years to one large increase. It’s similar to the suggestion he made earlier this year, when the county commission began talking about raising overall impact fees. The overall fee, which includes the school fee, stands at $4,714.
“$4,000 is a huge increase at once," Allocco said. "I don’t think anyone on this board can stomach that.”
Although they’re pushing for a $6,500 school impact fee, Stratton and some School Board members said they would be happy with a $4,266 fee, a level suggested by a consultant in 2005.
School Board member Gus Guadagnino told the commission he had opposed tax and fee increases for most of his nearly 35 years in Hernando County. But both the county government and School Board are “lean machines” now, he said, and this proposed increase is necessary for survival, rather than a bureaucratic bloat.
“Growth has to happen,” he said. "Growth is expensive. It shouldn’t be on the backs of the people who are here already.”
The two sides will resume talks at a joint workshop, which hasn’t been scheduled yet, but will be announced and open to the public.