TAMPA — Developers will no longer be able to pass on long-term water and sewer fees to buyers of new homes, Hillsborough commissioners decided Wednesday.
But the vote to kill the so-called impact fee assessment unit — a 20-year charge added to a home buyer’s tax bill to pay for connecting a newly built house to county utility service — was overshadowed by a tense exchange between commissioners over the merits of encouraging public participation via social media.
The assessment fee is “a bad deal for the county, and a bad deal for the homebuyer,” Commissioner Mariella Smith said in a Jan. 30 Facebook post. “Commissioners Pat Kemp, Kimberly Overman and I (Mariella Smith) have been pressing to eliminate this developer giveaway program for some time, but we haven’t yet had the four votes needed to kill it. I’m hoping that with your help and with two new commissioners we can get those votes now.”
Smith included information on how to contact county commissioners. The post drew 30 comments and Commissioner Gwen Myers said her office received 79 emails.
Wednesday, Myers, elected in November, let Smith know she didn’t appreciate the social media push.
“I think it’s very unprofessional and unethical for a sitting county commissioner to use social media for citizens to contact us, which possibly could lead to hate mail or just attack if you’re out in public,” Myers said.
Smith said she didn’t plan to stop discussing issues with her constituents whether on social media or elsewhere.
“I am sorry if in any way you took this personally or you didn’t like getting the email you got, but I’m quite sure I haven’t see any hate mail and certainly I haven’t and would never instigate any hate mail. So, I think you go too far, Commissioner Myers, in your criticism of public servants discussing current issues with our constituents in public.”
Smith and Myers joined the 6-1 majority when the commission voted in December not to accept new applications for the assessment program. Despite the dust-up Wednesday, the 6-1 majority remained in tact to kill the program entirely. Commissioner Ken Hagan dissented as he did in December.
Smith has been pushing for the end of the assessment for some time, and last summer unsuccessfully floated her own proposal to transfer more of the expense from home buyers to developers.
Impact fees, which vary according to the size and type of a new building and the location it is built, are assessments on new construction to help pay for the roads, utilities and other services needed to accommodate new residents and businesses.
Last year, the commission raised water and wastewater impact fees from $3,550 to nearly $5,600 in the south county to help finance expanded service to the fast-growing area. Commissioners also re-instituted a separate development fee of $1,822 per home charged at the front-end of planned projects to reserve utility capacity for the eventual home buyers.
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The utility impact fee assessment shifts costs from developers to the home buyer who pays the majority of the expense via a $471 annual assessment. That accumulates to $9,412 over the two-decade repayment and homebuyers often are surprised the first time they find the charge on their property tax bills. Smith called it “sneaky” and “a corporate welfare program.”
“I think it is sound public policy terminate this program,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen.
The vote does not affect current developments involved in the assessment program, and pending applications filed before Dec. 16 are scheduled to be considered at the commission’s Feb. 17 meeting.