TAMPA — During their 18-year control of Hillsborough County government, Republican commissioners steered clear of using taxes and fees to boost county revenue.
But now Democrats are in charge. And with a growing number of fixes and overhauls on their to-do list as the county prepares its budget for the next two years, the board appears ready and willing to put every option on the table.
With little pushback from Republican members thus far, commissioners have given preliminary approval to a number of fee and tax increases over the next fiscal year, including hikes in the storm water fee, solid waste collection fee and mobility fee. For the first time in 30 years, there could even be an increase in development fees — possibly by as much as 90 percent.
Piggybacking on those discussions are talks of potential hikes in the county's fuel tax, bed tax, communications services tax and even property taxes.
The shift in philosophy comes at the start of a budgeting process that will force the commission to confront a key problem: the growing gap between the services it can afford to provide and the county's explosive population growth and resulting urban sprawl, County Administrator Mike Merrill said.
For years, the county has relied heavily on fixed property taxes to cover the cost of services it provides residents — basic services such as garbage collection and transportation options, as well as regular maintenance of county roads, storm water drains and existing infrastructure.
"Residents expect a certain level of service and there's a cost, so even if another person never shows up here, we've got a fixed cost that we've got to cover unless we start peeling back services," Merrill said. "But because we're so reliant on property taxes to pay the bill, to the extent that growth and taxable value declines, it makes it hard for us even to meet our overheads."
In a budget presentation last month, Merrill estimated the county would bring in $84.5 million in new revenue in the 2020 fiscal year. That money is meant to pay for the county's basic operating costs, Merrill said, but years of stagnant tax and fee rates have left this year's budget with an estimated $73.6 million worth of long-ignored unfunded operating needs."
Those needs aren't arbitrary expenses, Merrill said: "It's all very, very basic stuff."
"We've got huge challenges — affordable housing, transportation, go down the list," he said.
Commissioners have already taken steps to address that gap in the upcoming budget, which must be approved by July 17.
At the board's last meeting, staff was told to bring back different plans to increase development fees by as much as 90 percent. One would increase those fees all at once and the other would stagger the increase over several years. Staff was also told to craft policies that would offer fee waivers to affordable housing developers and mitigate fee costs for small businesses and land owners.
Commissioner Pat Kemp has long urged her fellow board members to heed consultant reports that found that, under the existing fee schedule, the county actually loses thousands of dollars for every development application it processes. The board's historic reluctance to increase developers' costs within the county, even to account for inflation, has left county residents subsidizing the costs themselves, Kemp argued.
"Since we instituted these fees in 1987 under Jan Platt, when the Berlin Wall was still up and Ronald Reagan was president, they have not been changed. So for 30 years, our taxpayers have been subsidizing this process, and that's not good," Kemp said. "We've also not been even anywhere near what they've been charging for similar things in surrounding counties."
At its meeting this week, the board is expected to set a June 5 public hearing in which members will vote on whether to increase the Tourist Development Tax — currently, a 5 percent sales tax on hotel and rental stays — to 6 percent. The increase would net an additional $6.4 million annually to spend on tourism-related projects and promotions.
Mobility fees, fire impact fees and solid waste fees have long remained the lowest in the Tampa Bay area and are all likely to increase next fiscal year, Merrill said. And commissioners' most recent talks have targeted storm water fees, which average about $42 a year for residents but should be double the current rates to pay for actual costs.
Commissioner Sandy Murman cautioned the board not to increase the cost of living for county residents as a quick fix for decades old problems.
Despite the challenges and needs waiting to be addressed, the county is still in good economic health with a budget of about $5.5 billion, Murman said.
"We cannot just keep increasing fees to get ourselves out of these problems," she told her board colleagues. "They have to be able to withstand the test of downturn, everything. Otherwise, the effect it has on developers, homebuilders, commercial developers, whoever — it will drive people out of this county. It will drive business away.''
Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.