Editorial: Hillsborough residents subsidize developers

SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN   |   Times A new house under construction in Waterset on Big Bend Road in Hillsborough County’s Apollo Beach area.
SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Times A new house under construction in Waterset on Big Bend Road in Hillsborough County’s Apollo Beach area.
Published Oct. 26, 2018

Hillsborough County residents are paying for growth on both ends, subsidizing development on the front end while struggling to address billion-dollar backlogs for roads, schools and other public services. Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp tried to slow that senseless cycle this month with a reasonable proposal to raise development fees. The commission's refusal to act is another reason why voters need to make smart choices for the board in the November elections.

Kemp exposed the pitifully low sum developers pay when applying to build projects that exceed existing planning guidelines. If a developer wants to tear up more than 100 acres in Manatee County, for example, the application fee alone would cost $20,000. Broward County would charge $17,500; in Pasco, the fee is $7,000. But Hillsborough's fee is only $1,000 — a token amount that hasn't changed since 1987, when Ronald Reagan was president.

Kemp told her colleagues at a commission meeting this month that Hillsborough's fees were "appallingly low" and have effectively subsidized developers for decades. As the Tampa Bay Times' Christopher O'Donnell reported, that conclusion is backed up by a consultant's report that estimates the county is losing about $3,000 for every application it processes, based on the costs of staff hours. The county has handled 47 applications this year, so that taxpayer subsidy adds up fast.

Kemp called for commissioners to increase the fees to at least pay for the staff time. Under one proposal, application fees to consider large-scale developments would increase to $4,000 from $3,000, while fees for smaller developments (less than 500 acres) would increase to $4,000 from $1,000. The fees for other plan reviews would also increase, to up to $1,500 from between $100 and $150. But even with the higher fee schedule, Hillsborough's rates would still be lower than those in Pasco, Manatee, Broward and Palm Beach counties. And for large developments, the higher fees would still be lower than if Hillsborough had indexed the current fee by 3 percent over the 29 years since it was last updated.

Commissioners balked, though, insisting they need more time to get feedback from developers. Commissioner Victor Crist resurrected the canard that higher fees would dampen real estate development. "Whatever fees we charge are going to be passed onto the homebuyer," he said. It's inconceivable that an extra $1,000 for a 500-acre project would catch anybody's notice. Home prices are largely shaped by interest rates, the price of materials and other big costs — not modest increases over time in permitting fees. And why should current residents subsidize developers by shouldering the costs for overseeing new construction?

The commission's stalling and its refusal to see the low fees as indefensible cost-shifting help explain the backlog in public services and underscore the importance of bringing a fresh perspective to the board in the Nov. 6 elections. In the countywide races for commission Districts 5 and 7, Mariella Smith and Kimberly Overman offer pragmatic and fair agendas for managing growth. Updating permitting fees that haven't changed in decades should be an easy start. Higher fees would also send a message that local government is going to take the public impact of these projects more seriously.