Editorial: Hillsborough County should stop subsidizing developers

The county has not raised some of its development fees in 30 years.
Hillsborough County should raise the fees it charges for reveiw of new development. Times (2017)
Hillsborough County should raise the fees it charges for reveiw of new development. Times (2017)
Published May 20

For too long, Hillsborough County has charged real estate developers absurdly low fees. The fees often don’t cover basic costs, including the time county employees spend reviewing development proposals. Thankfully, the commission appears ready to address this unneeded subsidy. The sooner the better. Taxpayers in a county with a growing list of needs shouldn’t pick up part of the tab for these for-profit projects.

Take as an example a builder who wants to develop 100 acres in a way that is not outlined in the county’s land use plan. Hillsborough County charges $1,000 to have certified county planners analyze the project and process the application. In Pasco, developers pay $7,000, according to a consultant’s report. In Broward, it’s $17,500. In Manatee, it’s $20,000.

Hillsborough last updated that fee in 1987, the year President Ronald Reagan urged the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Andy Warhol died that year; so did Fred Astaire. The nation’s top selling car, the Ford Escort, sold for $6,895. That’s way too long to wait.

The review isn’t a rubber stamp. The planners consider each project’s impact on sewer and water systems, neighboring properties, schools and law enforcement resources. Sometimes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or Tampa International Airport have to get involved. The process takes time and expertise, far more than what’s covered by a mere $1,000. In fact, the county loses about $3,000 per report on average, according to a study from 2016.

The same study contemplated raising that particular fee to $4,000. If that sounds high, consider that developers often squeeze hundreds of houses into a single project. Build 100 homes, and it works out to $40 a pop, less than the price of a kitchen faucet. Build 400, and it’s $10. The fee becomes a mere blip in the overall price and certainly not enough to dampen development.

So-called free-market conservatives on the county commission have often fought proposed increases to the development fees, saying developers would have to absorb the costs or pass them onto home buyers. That’s exactly what should happen. Current homeowners and other Hillsborough taxpayers shouldn’t shoulder the cost of overseeing new construction.

Democrats now control the Hillsborough commission. They seem much more inclined to remedy the unfair cost-shifting, led by returning Commissioner Pat Kemp. Staffers have been asked to draw up plans to raise them all at once or gradually.

That would not be a bad starting point, but many of the fees haven’t gone up in decades. This is not the time for incremental measures. The commission should raise the fees to reflect the true cost of reviewing development projects. Anything less than covering the full value of staff time would be a disservice and an irresponsible waste of tax dollars. Stop subsidizing for-profit developers.