Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Impact fee issue sparks debate at joint meeting (SAR)

St. Augustine Record sent its rookie  education reporter to cover one of the most important meetings of the year.  Why?     Lacking critical thinking skills, this reporter did not quote Tom Reynolds, me, et al. re: unfairness of dictatorial St. Johns County Commission Chairman JAMES KENNETH JOHNS sua sponte refusing to allow public comment after each agenda item.  This deprived us of the ability to respond to the economist's presentation with intelligent comments.

Impact fee issue sparks debate at joint meeting

A consultant hired by St. Johns County is recommending development impact fees increase in almost all categories across the board in order to keep pace with growth.
Commission chair Jimmy Johns said neither board would make any decision at the time on the hot-button issue of whether to change the fee structure levied upon developers and passed onto homebuyers of new residential construction or commercial real estate.
“This is far from a done deal in my mind, as some in the public have suggested,” added Commissioner Henry Dean.
Dean said he and other St. Johns County officials only got the study submitted by consultant James C. Nicholas last week and were still digesting the recommendations contained in that report.
Nicholas, an economist, was retained by the county to calculate the environmental cost of development in six areas of infrastructure: schools, roads, fire and rescue, law enforcement, public buildings, and parks and recreation. 
The county’s impact fees have been adjusted only for inflation since 2011.
St. Johns County was one of the first municipalities in Florida to adopt impact fees beginning in 1987.
“And like most pioneers, you end up with arrows in your back,” Nicholas said.
In his presentation, Nicholas proposed a different fee schedule from the one currently employed. Now, homes up to 1,800 square feet are assessed a total of $9,404 in impact fees. Homes larger than that pay $13,431.
Nicholas’ formula shifts a higher share of the total impact cost to larger residential units by breaking the fee schedule into six categories. A 5,000-square-foot home, for instance, would pay $23,333, up 73 percent, while a unit at 800 square feet or less would pay $8,557, a nine percent reduction.
However, a 2,000-square-foot home would be assessed a fee of $15,687.
Many of the categories in which the county collects from new residential construction would see an increase if the proposed changes were to be adopted — hence the higher fees for most new homes.
The study, however, contemplates a decrease in school impact fees — from an average of $5,169 to $4,510 — a prospect that drew opposition from speakers at the meeting, some of whom commented on what they saw as an unfair shift of the growth burden from developers on to taxpayers.
St. Augustine resident Linda Oakley questioned why the school district felt the need to pass along a half-cent sales tax to county residents in order to accommodate an increase in students and alleviate overcrowded facilities just to have the county consider lowering school impact fees.
But Jessie Spradley said it wasn’t additional profits that developers sought in maintaining or lowering impact costs.
“These are hardworking folks who are trying to make a living,” said Spradley, who represents the Northeast Florida Builders Association. “This will hurt them if you increase fees.”
Nicholas said it was completely at the discretion of the county to adopt the impact fee amounts recommended by the report, or to lower them.
But, he added, those fees had to be distributed in a “proportional share” of true costs and they were not to be considered a tax, but a one-time charge to help support the infrastructure needs of growth.
The county levies school impact fees on behalf of the district. A formal recommendation by the school board, as well as public workshops and hearings by both boards, will need to take place before commissioners vote on impact fees.
School board president Tommy Allen called the first presentation Tuesday the beginning of a “fact-finding” mission.
Fellow board member Kelly Barrera said she considered the school board’s job to be educating children, with the county handling issues of growth and capacity.
Dean said at this point he favored lower impact fees for new commercial development in order to encourage more economic development in the region. Decisions about impact fees were never easy, Johns said.
“Raising the fees hurts someone, decreasing them hurts someone else,” Johns said. “What we’re trying to do is balance these out to have a net positive effect on everybody.”

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