TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith remembers trying to make her way home to Ruskin from downtown Tampa amid commuter gridlock on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.
She exited the highway but found the surface roads just as jammed, waiting through six red light cycles to cross a U.S. 41 intersection. She detoured through the Palm River neighborhood, hoping to wind toward Interstate 75, but only inched along amid countless other motorists doing likewise.
“It was stunning,’’ said Smith. “The whole system. One accident and the whole system fails and you can’t get there from here and I’m done for the next hour and half.’’
Commissioner Pat Kemp said a physician told her he once tried to answer an urgent call at St. Joseph’s Hospital-South in Riverview when he encountered the tail lights of cars and trucks at a standstill at Big Bend Road and U.S. 301. The doctor parked his car at Walmart and ran the remaining mile to the hospital.
“He figured he could get there much quicker on foot,’’ said Kemp.
Both commissioners blame residential sprawl for the traffic snarls. And both Democrats are part of a bi-partisan commission majority poised to increase fees charged on new development to pay for transportation and recreation.
In interviews with the Tampa Bay Times, Commissioners Kimberly Overman, also a Democrat, and Republican Stacy White said they too will support the higher fees.
They are scheduled to vote Wednesday when the county commission holds a public hearing on a plan to increase the transportation fee from $5,094 to as much as $9,183 for a single-family home. The fee would be reduced to $7,401 if the legal challenge to the voter-approved transportation surtax is rejected by the Florida Supreme Court, according to information presented to commissioners previously.
The park impact fee is proposed to increase from $388 to $3,300 for a new single-family home. That fee, which hasn’t increased since its adoption in 1985, would be more than $1,000 currently if it had been indexed for inflation, said the Maryland-based TischlerBise consulting firm that calculated the fee proposal.
Impact fees, which vary according to the size of the house and the location it is built, are one-time assessments on new construction to help pay for the roads, schools and other services needed to accommodate new residents and businesses. The cost traditionally gets passed on to the buyer in the price of the house.
Not all the proposed fees ares going up. The transportation fee drops for some commercial uses like drive-through banks, single-use office buildings, light industry and warehouses in rural areas under the proposal.
Still, the commercial real estate industry isn’t embracing the idea, particularly since the current fee schedule, adopted in 2016, hasn’t been implemented fully. It now is being collected at 80 percent of the maximum rate and is scheduled to bump to 90 percent in 2021.
“We say let the fee increase happen that’s already happening anyway and see how the market reacts,’’ said Todd Josko of Ballard Partners, which represents the 150-member NAIOP Tampa Bay, the region’s commercial real estate trade association.
Higher fees affect a company’s "ability to expand, to bring on new hires. None of that’s really being discussed — job creation,’’ said Josko.
More intensive push-back comes from the Tampa Bay Builders Association, which is balking at the proposed fee increases after earlier supporting a raise to the school impact fee that the commission approved in March.
“This isn’t the right time to be raising taxes and an impact fee is a tax. It’s a tax on new homes,’’ said Jennifer Motsinger, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.
Both Motsinger and Josko parroted the language of Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr., who voted against planning for a 2020 sales tax referendum depending on the transportation surtax ruling from the Florida Supreme Court.
“Now is not the time to be talking about a tax or raising fees,” Miller said during the April 1 meeting.
Miller’s aide said the commissioner was unavailable for an interview. Commissioner Ken Hagan declined comment because he had yet to see a final proposal. Commissioner Sandra Murman previously signaled her objections to the proposed fee increases during an April 28 workshop, citing the economic uncertainty from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The builders association is using a social media campaign to try to sway public opinion with a tagline on its Facebook postings that says congestion is the problem, “not growth and prosperity.’’ It cites the number of jobs created by residential home construction and the importance of the home-building industry to the Hillsborough County economy.
“No amount of lobbying is going to change my mind that our fees need to be modernized in Hillsborough County,’’ countered Commissioner White.
Some commissioners took exception to a May 12 Facebook post they called misleading.
“Our voters passed a 1 cent sales tax for congestion relief. What did Hillsborough County spend it on? Nothing,’’ says the post. It contains no information about the lawsuit from White that, so far, has stymied county plans to invest the sales tax proceeds in transportation projects.
“Fake news,’’ Kemp said of the social media announcement.
"The statement is accurate,'' Motsinger said in an email.
"Anti-growth policies cannot fix congestion. In fact, they exacerbate it,'' she said.
While higher fees appear to be a foregone conclusion, the timing does not. White said he favors a phased approach in light of the shaky economy from the coronavirus pandemic. Smith, Overman and Kemp said they were more reluctant to allow the fees to increase in stages. The current transportation fee remained status quo for 27 years before the 2016 update. Four years later, it still isn’t being collected at the full rate. Meanwhile, road construction costs are up by approximately one-third since 2016, according to a study from Tindale Oliver. The park fee has gone 35 years without changing.
"How can we possibly continue on this path?'' said Kemp. "I don’t know how we continue. We can’t keep doing this. It’s unstable.''
In June, the commission also will consider increasing fees for water and sewer service.
If all are approved, the impact fees charged to a single-family home will double from just less than $9,000 to slightly more than $18,000. Combined with the previously-approved fee increase for schools, the cost to build a 2,000-square foot house in the urban service zone will go from less than $13,000 to approximately $28,000 if the commission approves all of the fee proposals.
“I believe in paying bills,’’ said Overman. “We’re not really raising the fees, we’re bringing them to what it costs (to provide infrastructure). We’re balancing our budget.’’