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As fees rise, scrutiny of costs must increase

A Times Editorial
Published December 19, 2006


Most of the talk concerning impact fees so far has focused on the enormous proposed increases, which comes as no great surprise considering the kind of numbers being tossed around.

With the combined fees for a single-family home, the benchmark in such discussions, in line to top $16,000, and with fees for commercial building roaring deep into the six-figure range, the emphasis naturally has been on the economic implications of such dramatic increases in the price of new construction.

County commissioners spent a good portion of their workshop Dec. 7 hearing conflicting arguments about the need to raise these one-time charges to new construction at such rates. When the board takes up this issue Jan. 25, expect to hear even more debate on the fairness of the proposed increases.

At the same time, the commissioners must direct equal attention to the other side of the equation: the costs of the projects expected to be financed by these rising impact fees.

As any conscientious adult knows, financial health comes when you balance your expenses with income. In this discussion, the emphasis has been weighted heavily on the income side of the ledger and not enough on the expense side.

Commissioners Dennis Damato and Gary Bartell opened the doors at the workshop for further discussion on why things cost so much, calling for more details than the simple explanation that the price of everything is rising. Although that may be true in general, the board needs more specific information about how the tens of millions of dollars being raised through impact fees are being spent.

Bartell, for example, questioned why the price of acquiring right of way for the widening of County Road 486 cost three times what the county paid for right of way alongside County Road 491 when that highway was widened a short time later.

Could the county have saved millions by acquiring the properties simultaneously? Both projects were being planned at roughly the same time. Could more work have been done in-house, at a savings? Should the county be buying property today in anticipation of projects scheduled for years in the future?

Questions were also raised about the use of impact fee dollars on a resurfacing project on Independence Highway in Inverness. Impact fees are not allowed for such work, but the commissioners were told that because there were intersection improvements that increased car-carrying capacity, the impact fees were allowed to be used. That explanation did not seem to completely satisfy anyone.

Then there is the matter of the bank building at Croft Avenue and State Road 44 and whether the county bungled the purchase of the property somehow, a misstep or timing problem that might cost the taxpayers a bundle extra if the county tries to buy it now.

There appears to be ample room for inquiry into just how the transportation dollars are being doled out.

Damato, for his part, is zeroing in on school spending, calling for more details on just how much the district has received in additional revenue because of the impact fee increases in recent years. The number cited at the workshop was $75-million for capital projects over four years.

Damato wants an accounting for just how those millions have been spent in a district that is seeing some increase in enrollments but hardly a tsunami of new students.

This sort of accounting is essential not only for the commissioners but for the public as well. In recent years, thousands of Citrus taxpayers have been hit by soaring property assessments and the resultant increases to their tax bills. They have seen the budgets of all of the government offices climb exponentially, even as the population rises modestly.

They know that the prices of construction materials and vacant land are rising, even as their incomes remain stagnant. The public is forced to be fiscally diligent to make ends meet, and they have every right to expect their elected officials to be the same way with the money sent their way.

During the upcoming debate on how much to raise the impact fees, the commissioners must direct as much scrutiny at how the money already collected is being spent as they will on how much more to bring in.




[Last modified December 19, 2006, 06:20:44]

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