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Panel pushes gas tax increase

A county task force suggests the hike to replace developer impact fees as transportation improvements funding.

Published February 4, 2004

CLEARWATER - For nearly two decades, Pinellas County has required developers to help pay for transportation improvements aimed at moving traffic created by their new projects.

But a movement is afoot to relieve them of that obligation. And who would make up for the more than $3-million lost annually? Anyone buying gasoline in Pinellas.

The proposal would eliminate transportation impact fees now paid by developers by December 2005 and replace that stream of revenue with a 1-cent increase in the local gas tax.

A small task force of elected officials, business people and citizens is pushing the proposal and so far has gained support from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county's transportation planning board.

The task force has begun to answer questions posed by the MPO, and expects to present a refined proposal to the Pinellas County Commission in a few months.

Developers would stop paying the county directly and would instead contribute to solving traffic problems by designing what are being described simply as "livable communities." The planning concept is largely undefined, but entails limiting traffic and improving the quality of life.

As Pinellas County approaches build-out, its revenue from impact fees has dropped in recent years with builders focusing their construction on previously developed land, which carries reduced impact fees.

But several county commissioners who would have to approve the change are skeptical of letting developers off the hook for millions and passing it on to consumers.

Last year, commissioners considered raising the gas tax by as much as 6 cents per gallon, but backed away in October when public opposition grew and the county could not reach a consensus with Pinellas County's 24 municipalities on how to share the additional revenue.

Instead, commissioners directed their staff to develop a broader proposal for solving the county's transportation problems. But some aren't convinced the new plan is the solution.

"I don't want to be an alarmist," Commissioner Calvin Harris said. "But (one) week a gallon of gas was $1.77. Nothing has happened except that the price has gone up to $1.81. That's just too much to start adding additional taxes."

At least one county commissioner is asking his colleagues to have an open mind.

Commissioner Bob Stewart serves as the chairman of the task force, which began a routine evaluation of the impact fees last year. He said changing times demand a creative solution as the pool of money generated by impact fees slowly diminishes.

"There's got to be some kind of faith factor," Stewart said. "Given the time, a change in the way we do business will result in a better community."

Since the mid 1980s, the county has charged developers impact fees based on how much it will cost to handle the traffic their projects are expected to create.

The impact fees are based on the size and type of development. Often, developers pay less than the full fee because they can earn credits for redeveloping a piece of property.

Not including any credits or other reductions in the fee, the developer of a single family home would pay about $2,000; a 10,000-square-foot store would pay about $30,000; and a 100,000-square-foot office building would pay more than $200,000, according to the county's planning director.

But Pinellas County has scarce open space for new development.

For example, developers of the new Clearwater Mall paid no impact fees at all. The previous developer had already paid for improvements needed to accommodate a mall and the redevelopment, in theory, would not generate more traffic.

That trend has taken a toll on the county's revenue stream, said Brian Smith, the county's planning director. In 2002, the county collected nearly $4-million in impact fees. Last year, that figure dropped to $3.1-million.

"It's easy to throw yourself in front of this moving train," Stewart said. "But what we are saying is what's in place is not working."

By adding 1 cent to the current county gas tax (which is 6 cents), Pinellas County officials estimate raising an additional $3.6-million annually.

Rick Kriseman, a St. Petersburg City Council member who serves on the task force proposing the change, said developers wouldn't get off easy. Asking them to include transportation improvements as part of their site plans is a better idea and, he said, would cost them more money.

"What we heard from the folks representing developers on the task force, "We will pay more but we will get more,' " Kriseman said.

County Administrator Steve Spratt would like more details about the livable communities concept.

"When they give me a word like that, one of my questions is what does that mean and how much money does it involve," Spratt said. "What's the net effect? That may be very hard to answer."

Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala is doubtful of the proposal. So is Harris, who says Pinellas has some of the lowest impact fees in the state.

Commissioner Karen Seel, the only MPO member to vote against the proposal last month, points out that St. Petersburg, Safety Harbor and Pinellas Park each have "no fee zones." Those zones, which expire this year, try to encourage development by waiving impact fees. She said requiring fees in those zones could translate into millions more for transportation improvements.

Seel supports the theory behind livable communities. She's been leading a countywide task force developing a redevelopment plan for Pinellas and said similar concepts are being discussed.

But she's not convinced a repeal of impact fees is the solution. She would be more inclined to see a compromise, such as rebates for developers who incorporate ideas aimed at limiting traffic.

"I'm just not sure I'm supportive of doing away with transportation impact fees with the hope that there will be changes," Seel said. "I don't think that shows us looking at the big picture."

[Last modified February 4, 2004, 01:31:46]

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