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Hernando Commission approves higher school impact fees

Money will help Hernando Schools accommodate additional students moving into new housing developments.

BROOKSVILLE — New houses are about to sprout in Hernando County, and soon they will fill up with additional school children. County commissioners who approve those new housing communities agreed on Tuesday to help provide funding for additional classrooms by increasing builder impact fees for schools.

The board voted 4-1 on the increase, with Commissioner Wayne Dukes voting no. Commissioner Steve Champion, who has said he would not agree to higher fees, helped pass the increase on Tuesday because the amount was recommended by builders, realtors and the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.

The fee for a single-family home will increase from $2,133, which is half of what a consultant recommended in a 2005, to $3,176, which is half of what a consultant recommended in April. The new fees would start in June of 2020.

Commissioners rejected another proposed change, which would have had all impact fees due at the end of the building process, when the county issues a certificate of occupancy. Instead, the payment will be due when the building permit is issued. Local builders favored keeping the existing rule.

Impact fees are designed to pay for infrastructure required for population growth, relieving some of the burden on existing taxpayers. School impact fees are paid only on new homes, because businesses don’t generate new students.

They have long been controversial.

Home builders and real estate professionals fought the fees during the housing downturn, saying that higher fees would drive away the small number of people wanting to build homes.

The Hernando County schools have worked to make good financial decisions, said School Board member Linda Prescott. Her board has considered everything from employing its own police force to a four-day school week to save money.

"We are going to have to build new schools, and impact fees will help us do that,'' she said Tuesday.

Increasing fees is "the right way to go,'' argued School Board member Jimmy Lodato. "There is no choice.''

"Education is the driver of economic development and economic success,'' said School Board member Kay Hatch.

In the past several years, more and more developers have sought building permits in Hernando County. County planners, the county planning commission and the County Commission review those plans every month and have commented that the increase indicates a need for more classrooms.

County elementary schools are full, and officials know that middle and high school numbers will rise, as well. The school district is planning school additions on existing campuses, rather than new schools, but the costs are still in the millions. That was the point school superintendent John Stratton made last month, when he pitched the higher impact fees to the commission.

In total, the district’s schools can handle 22,900 students, and it is at 98 percent of capacity. It also is using portable classrooms for some of the students, but many portables are reaching the end of their useful life. The district does not want to rely on portables to relieve its capacity issues, Stratton has said.

Stratton estimated the cost to build a 10-classroom expansion at $6.5 million to $7.5 million. The cost for a new elementary school is $21 million to $23 million.