BROOKSVILLE — In recent months, county commissioners have given their development approval to thousands of new homes scattered around the county and, in many cases, heard a recurring concern from planners that new homes will bring new school students.
Some of Hernando County’s elementary schools are already at capacity, with middle and high school student numbers likely to follow.
At the request of a concerned Hernando County School Board, superintendent John Stratton on Tuesday asked commissioners to help with that need by increasing the school impact fees it collects from new development.
The request brought a lengthy debate by commissioners, questioning why schools need help funding construction. There were concerns that local builders, who have in the past opposed increasing the fees, were caught off guard by the timing of the discussion. And there were worries that increasing fees might stymie housing growth.
In the end, the commission voted four to one to move forward with a new impact fee for schools, with a formal ordinance providing the timing details and possibly flexibility of the amount at a meeting next month.
The tentative agreement would increase the current impact fee for a single family home from $2,133 to $3,176. While the current fee is 50 percent of what a consultant determined it should be in 2005, the new number is 50 percent of the amount a new consultant report in April 2019 said it should be.
Impact fees are paid on the construction of new homes and businesses. School impact fees are paid only by residential construction. The fees are supposed to help government pay for the impact of new growth in a community rather than having existing residents pay through their property taxes. In the case of school impact fees, the monies would be used for school construction and other impacts of a growing school district.
At his school board’s request, Stratton came seeking the full 2019 recommended impact fee, but he told commissioners he would be happy to see a lesser increase because the need for new classrooms is great.
The school district’s consultant determined that one in three new residential homes built will include a school-aged child who will need a desk in a classroom. New elementary schools cost between $21 million and $23 million to build, Stratton said.
Over the next five years, the district projects it will raise $16.7 million with the old impact fee. If the entire new impact fee recommended at $6,352 was charged, that would bring in $49.7 million in five years.
Stratton also brought current capacity numbers for the schools. All totaled, the district’s schools can handle 22,900 students and the district is at 98 percent of capacity. It is also using portable classrooms to handle some of the students but many of the portables are reaching the end of their natural life. Stratton said the district does not want to rely on portables to relieve its capacity issues.
Wanting to stay conservative, Stratton said the district wants to build classroom additions at existing schools. The estimate to build a 10-classroom expansion is between $6.5 million and $7.5 million.
School board members Gus Guadagnino and Jimmy Lodato also urged commissioners to raise the fee. "We have a lot of growth,'' Guadagnino said, "and it has to be paid for one way or another.''
Lodato wanted to see the whole amount recommended in the most recent study, saying it was an investment in the community and the children. "We have to do the right thing,'' he said.
Commissioner John Allocco asked whether more students weren’t going into non-public school settings. Stratton brought numbers showing that public schools saw 832 new students added in the last five years, home education programs grew by 90 and other options including virtual and charter schools grew by 183.
Allocco said he expected the discussion on impact fees next month when a joint meeting of the commission the School Board and the Brooksville City Council is planned. Still, he said he was concerned about the amount the School Board wanted. "Requesting tripling of the fees is really staggering,'' he said.
Commissioner Steve Champion questioned whether the school district was doing everything that it could to find money in their own budget. He has repeatedly raised questions about why schools leave lights on late into the night when campuses were done for the day.
"What else is wasted,'' Champion asked.
"I respectfully disagree'' that the schools misspend money, Stratton responded. "I can justify every dollar that is spent.''
Champion also argued that if higher impact fees drive growth away, then the county and the school district lose much more in future tax revenue than they will receive in one-time impact fees.
Commission Chairman Jeff Holcomb said he felt that the board owed an apology to local builders who were not notified that the discussion had been moved up to Tuesday’s meeting. But Bob Eaton, owner of Artistic Homes and the government liaison for the Hernando County Builders Association, did attend the meeting.
He questioned what other funding sources the district could use to build schools. And he said that the district’s hope to build with cash reserves rather than borrowing money was unrealistic.
The Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce recommended the same figure that commissioners finally settled on at $3,176. Champion was the sole vote against moving forward with drawing up an ordinance which would establish that new fee, although Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he would ultimately vote against an impact fee increase ordinance.
"I’m not going to support this. Absolutely not,'' Dukes said, suggesting that the district tighten its own belt and find the needed funding.
The board majority didn’t settle on when they wanted the fees to take effect, although the builders had pitched a start in June 2020.