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House GOP bill proposes an end to impact fees

By SHELBY OPPEL and JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- House Republicans are pushing a plan to eliminate impact fees in 15 fast-growing Florida counties, including three in the Tampa Bay area.

The plan would replace the fees with proceeds from a state tax homeowners already pay on mortgages.

Homebuilders, who hate the fees they now pay for new development, cheer the change. But school officials wonder if the money swap will be enough to keep pace with growth.

"We're so desperate for money," said John Long, superintendent of Pasco County schools.

While Pasco County doesn't now charge impact fees, Long was hopeful county commissioners would vote to do so this year. For 15 years, the district has opened at least one school each year to keep up with student growth. Next year, the district will open two schools.

"Pasco's ready" for an impact fee, Long said. "We're ready to go."

Impact fees, introduced in the 1980s, are imposed on developers, who pass them on to home buyers. The fees help pay for the additional services those new homeowners require -- new roads, new firefighters and new schools. Citrus, Hernando and Hillsborough counties charge impact fees for schools.

For Richard Gentry, a lobbyist for the Florida Home Builders Association, eliminating school impact fees is only fair. In counties such as Pasco, families with young children are buying existing homes once owned by retirees, putting pressure on the school system, Gentry said. But only new homeowners must pay to build new schools.

Last year, lawmakers blocked counties from imposing new impact fees and set up a commission to study the issue. That group recommended eliminating the fees, but only if lawmakers provided other dollars to make up the difference and allowed school boards to levy more taxes to keep up with growth.

The plan backed by House leaders, however, doesn't allow for any new taxes.

A bill by state Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, would set aside enough tax revenue to reimburse districts for the lost impact fees until 2004. The payments could not exceed what districts earn this year from impact fees.

So, even if the Hillsborough school district stood to earn more from impact fees next year than this year, the state would reimburse the district at the lower rate. The Hillsborough school district earned $1.9-million from impact fees in 1998-99.

Lacasa's bill does not include the second half of the commission's recommendation, to allow school boards to approve a 1 cent sales tax while reducing school property taxes.

"I did not want to carry any tax increases or an increase in tax-levying authority," Lacasa said.

Valerie Adams, whose son attends double sessions at Sickles High School in Tampa, served on the commission. The recommendations were supposed to ensure stable funding and flexibility for school districts and should not have been separated, she said.

"Those of us who care about the children, we wanted both," said Adams, who lives in Countryway, northwest of Tampa.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, has introduced a bill that mirrors the commission's recommendation but has less support among leaders in the Republican-controlled House.

While Lacasa's bill is a work in progress, House Speaker John Thrasher said it should resolve the debate that "constantly rages" about school impact fees.

"I think it's a good issue," Thrasher said.

If Lacasa's bill succeeds, counties such as Pasco that don't levy school impact fees would lose the right to do so in the future. Instead, school districts in the remaining 52 counties would share roughly $50-million over four years to pay for new construction.

The Senate does not include the impact fee cut in its budget and Senate President Toni Jennings was non-committal about the plans Wednesday. Gov. Jeb Bush has not taken a position but "is supportive of broad tax cuts," said his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Hirst.

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