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Governor saves school impact fee

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Disappointing home builders statewide, Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday blocked a plan to sharply reduce school impact fees in 15 fast-growing counties, including Citrus, Hernando and Hillsborough.

Bush vetoed a bill that would have reimbursed those counties' lost revenue with $50-million in state funds and then would have banned all other Florida counties from adopting new fees to pay for school construction.

"Fifty-two counties will be locked out of this new program altogether, and nothing in the bill accounts for changing patterns of population growth and school need. Therein lies the unfairness," Bush said in a written statement.

Observers of the debate still are convinced the fees will be eliminated, perhaps as soon as the summer of 2001. Bush's veto simply gives counties another year to collect the money or to levy new fees where they don't exist now.

In the meantime, Bush suggested that lawmakers and state officials study what role school impact fees should play in Florida's efforts to manage growth. The fees are one means to make growth pay for itself: New home buyers help finance new schools.

"I don't think we should limit (counties') ability to (levy school impact fees) unless there's a comprehensive answer to dealing with growth management," Bush said.

The veto was a blow to home builders, who hate the fees that are added to the price of new homes. The fees are unfair, they say, because some new home buyers do not create pressure on local schools: retirees, for example, and childless couples.

Moreover, families who buy older homes don't pay any school impact fees, yet their children fill nearby classrooms.

"When you rely on an impact fee, you're not even picking up on a majority of people putting pressure on the schools," said Richard Gentry, legislative counsel for the Florida Home Builders Association.

In west-central Florida, new home buyers pay a $135 fee in Citrus County, $195 in Hillsborough and $1,173 in Hernando.

Pinellas County has no school impact fees and no plans to adopt them, so the veto means little.

Pasco County commissioners are considering charging a school impact fee up to $1,700 for each new home. Bush's veto gives them some breathing room for debate.

In Citrus, county commissioners who have been studying whether to increase school impact fees will have the option to do so. And in Hernando, school officials say they can stop worrying that state funding to reimburse the lost fees will one day disappear.

"I'm happy. I think it should have been vetoed," said Vince Benedict, finance director for Hernando County schools. "We would lose control of impact fees."

In Hillsborough, county commissioners aren't currently considering raising school impact fees. But Hillsborough school Superintendent Earl Lennard said Bush's veto may give the School Board and the commission reason to revisit the subject.

The district earned $1.9-million from impact fees in 1998-99. The money is used to buy land for new schools.

"We felt as though ... it would be premature for us to jump in and try to increase the fees," Lennard said. "I think it could come up again now."

Despite Bush's veto, there are reasons to believe the days of impact fees are numbered.

This month, the state Supreme Court ruled that an adults-only retirement community in Volusia County shouldn't be forced to pay school impact fees, a decision expected to shrink school district coffers.

And next year, home builders and lawmakers will return to Tallahassee to argue for doing away with the fees entirely. State Sen. Jim Horne, R-Orange Park, wants the Legislature to consider using proceeds from a new telecommunications tax to replace the lost fees in counties that levy them, and to set up a stable school construction fund that is distributed fairly among all counties.

Horne, who sponsored the bill Bush vetoed Tuesday, said even he didn't like the final product.

"While (the veto) certainly creates some consternation and some heartburn for the builders, there was not one person who really liked the approach," Horne said.

-- Times staff writers Jo Becker, Robert King and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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