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Conditions accompany fee increase

All sides think a higher school impact fee is needed. But builders want a county sales tax first.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published December 13, 2005


TAMPA - Hillsborough County hasn't raised its school impact fee, which is the lowest in Florida, since 1989.

So when a 16-member task force recommended Monday to raise the fee to pay for new schools, it certainly seemed like a seismic shift.

Even the president of the politically powerful Tampa Bay Builders Association - long opponents of such an increase - said at the task force's meeting that the builders endorsed an uptick on fees that owners of new homes pay to accommodate growth.

Not so fast.

Association president Teri McGinnis added a condition: The builders support an increase in the fee, which is $196 for a three-bedroom home, in "conjunction with a county sales tax" earmarked for school construction and higher teacher salaries.

So that left task force members in a quandary: Does that mean impact fees don't get raised if voters don't approve a sales tax?

The panel of builders, parents and government officials chose to let county commissioners answer that question. It recommended that impact fees be raised to an average of $4,000 a home, that the sales tax is raised by a half cent and taxes on documentary stamps in real estate transactions.

Commissioners and the School Board can decide the rest, like whether to raise impact fees only if a sales tax passes and fees on documentary stamps are increased, too.

Those are big ifs, the size of poison pills.

In the 1990s, Hillsborough voters were asked three times to pass a sales tax to pay for school construction. Twice they voted no. The success of the third time in 1996 is largely credited to the inclusion of constructing Raymond James Stadium.

For the next five years, the Hillsborough school district estimated that it will cost $1.2-billion to construct and repair schools needed to accommodate the bulging student population. About $364-million is needed, district officials said, to meet that budget.

Commissioners, not the School Board, have the power to raise school impact fees, and they have typically told district officials that they would resist increasing them. But in October, Commissioner Ronda Storms scolded district officials for never making a case for impact fees, despite the looming deficit.

During an Oct. 5 meeting, Storms persuaded five other commissioners to approve a task force to consider higher impact fees and a sales tax. But she said voters should approve a sales tax first, then commissioners would pass an impact fee increase.

If impact fees are raised "before putting that referendum on the ballot," Storms said, "(the sales tax) will go down in flames."

A 2004 study paid for by the county and the school district concluded that impact fees should be about $3,800 per home. But such a fee would raise only about $40-million a year. Bob Hunter, executive director of the county's planning commission, said an additional $78-million a year would be needed from another source.

Some panel members warned that it was risky to place the fate of higher impact fees with the electoral success of a sales tax. If voters reject the tax, then schools are left with nothing, said school district chief of staff Ken Otero.

But Commissioner Tom Scott, co-chair of the task force, sided with developers on the panel in concluding that it wasn't realistic to approve an impact fee increase before voters approve a sales tax.

The School Board is expected to vote to approve the recommendations tonight. Scott expects commissioners to consider them in January.

--Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 13, 2005, 01:30:24]


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