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  1. Pasco

Audit: 31,000 building permits can't be accounted for in Pasco

Pasco County couldn't account for more than 30,000 commercial building permits issued over a 15-month period, failed to collect required transportation fees on some projects and cut another by nearly $59,000 even though the developer didn't meet the standard for a discount.

The findings are contained in an audit by the office of Pasco Clerk & Comptroller Paul S. O'Neil of how the county assesses and collects its mobility fees -- charges on new construction to pay for transportation upgrades.

With no public comment, Pasco commissioners voted to accept the audit March 12 as part of their consent agenda in which more than 50 items were approved in a single vote.

"That's a transparency issue. That's disappointing,'' said Jennifer Motsinger, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.

That group represents residential home builders, and last year Motsinger sat on the citizens committee that recommended updates to the fee costs. The audit did not address residential construction, instead focusing exclusively on commercial building permits.

"I think the audit needed to happen,'' Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said later. "I have concerns that they just haven't gotten that program down right. I keep getting assured that it's coming soon.''

The report, compiled by O'Neil's inspector general Patrice Monaco-McBride and two staff auditors, began after O'Neil's office received an anonymous letter contending the county staff wasn't properly charging the fees on commercial building permits. The report said it found no evidence of intentional errors, but it did "reveal concerns about the oversight and accuracy'' of the fee system.

The audit attempted to look at commercial building permit activity between April 15, 2016, and July 31, 2017, but the county's central permitting staff couldn't provide at complete report.

Approximately 29 percent of the permits, 31,164 of the 109,673 issued in the study period, were excluded from the examination.

"The missing permit numbers identified were not accounted for by the county staff, and verifiable documentation as to the reason the permits numbers were excluded was not provided,'' the report stated.

The county, which switched to a new computerized land management system known as Accela on April 11, 2016, suggested missing permit numbers might be attributable to failed computer applications. The county promised a follow-up report by next month.

The auditors then picked a random sample of 237 permits and identified problems with 19 of them. They found:

• The developer of a standalone Dunkin store in Land O' Lakes questioned the $121,562 fee, but did not request an independent traffic study in a timely manner as the county's land development code requires. Regardless, the county looked at 2011 data from Pinellas County and cut the fee almost in half to $58,852 by categorizing the business as a convenience store/gas station rather than a drive-thru, fast-food restaurant.

• The county failed to charge a $13,788 fee for the interior remodeling and build-out of an office in a warehouse on State Road 52.

• The county assessed fees for five permits for office villas near Mansfield Boulevard in Wesley Chapel at rates that were too low because of a land-use coding error. The fees were reassessed at the higher rate, reflecting a balance due the county of $4,700, after the auditor pointed out the mistake.

• A $392 administration fee wasn't collected on a permit for a medical office at River Crossing. The fee was assessed, but a former employee deleted it, the audit said.

• One permit holder was due a refund after the county overcharged by $1,662, again because the wrong land-use code was used.

The audit recommended greater oversight and quality assurance tests to ensure the fees are being properly assessed.

The county responses, included as part of the audit, noted the central permitting department took over review of the commercial mobility fees in late July 2017, when it inherited the zoning and intake department. Since then, it said it hired an additional review technician and accountant, established new operating procedures and trained additional staffers to "be more efficient and reduce errors.''

The county scraped its former transportation impact fees in 2011 and replaced them with the less expensive mobility fees, in part to stimulate economic activity amid the prolonged recession. The strategy also was intended to guide growth to the west and southern corridors of the county by offering reduced rates in those locations. Unlike the former impact fee, the mobility surcharges can be used for transit projects.

Two months after the close of the audit period, the county's 2017 fiscal year report showed that the county had $80 million in its mobility fee accounts. To subsidize the discounted mobility fees, the county annually assigns a portion of new property tax revenues to transportation and also increased the local gasoline tax in 2014 by five-cents per gallon.

The critical audit is the second in the past two years over how Pasco's central permitting office handles fees charged on new development. In 2017, O'Neil's office found incomplete or missing documentation needed to verify school impact fee payments on new residential construction. The audit also highlighted a lack of internal controls and personnel failing to follow the county's own land-development code.

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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