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How Do We Measure the Impact?


At the July 30 budget meeting, commissioners and staff struggled to find funds that would make the county whole again. The emotional expressions of unsettled anguish that poured into the camera and audience had more drama than can be found in any downtown theater. And it was all at the expense of the public, because there is something our officials won't tell you.

For the last nine months I have navigated through the hierarchy of Manatee County's utilities department, public works department, the county commission and the administrator's office with one question. How much does it cost to take a 14" pipe to Parrish?

I asked that question, because for two years no one would answer the previous question I had been asking: How does the county calculate impact fees? I never got an answer, so I narrowed the question down to a 14" pipe. 

To a layman that might seem a little vague, but to all of those in the departments I referenced, they knew exactly what I was referring to; it was the cost of infrastructure (police, fire, water, sewer, storm water, law enforcement, schools and parks) that, if not covered by new development impact fees, will become a calculated cost to the rest of us.

Look at it this way; if I am running people to the airport for $40, and the trip cost me $60 to get them there, increasing the number of trips will only increase my losses.

But don't tell that to Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker and Commissioners Benac and Baugh, because they stated at the July 30 meeting that "further development isn't the problem, it is the fix." 

"There's a hole in daddy's arm where all of the money goes" - John Prine

Impact fees are a one-time tax levied on all new residential and commercial development to offset the cost of growth’s “impact” on services like schools (which are levied in a separate fee by the school district) roads, parks, ambulance and fire, along with other infrastructure needs such as water and sewer hook-ups that the new residents will require, especially when services need to be extended to previously uninhabited or largely rural parts of that city or county.

Florida was actually one of the states that developed the concept almost four decades ago as a way for them to remain a low corporate and zero income tax state, while still being able to provide the necessary services of government. While developers argued that it would discourage growth and development, one look at Florida growth trends and historical land development maps quickly dismisses such claims.

Arguments that adequate impact fees lower property values also fall flat. In fact, a lack of adequate impact fees artificially lowers the price for newly-constructed homes, shifting the cost of growth onto existing homes and/or lowering the quality of life by reducing services (which actually does hurt property values). Meanwhile, putting that cost on the new development raises the ultimate selling price of new construction which lifts property values for the entire market, including existing homes. The idea that adding an increase in artificially-cheap supply to any market makes it more healthy and not less, defines basic economics.

The reason why developers like Carlos Beruff and Pat Neal prey upon this county, destroying wetlands, erasing pastoral hamlets and crowding rural roads is simple: our impact fees fall far below the cost to the county, and far below the fees of surrounding counties.

And if that is not enough, "special approvals" (variances and modifications to the rules set in our Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan) can save a developer millions of dollars; and when it comes to clients like Beruff and Neal, there is seldom a project where exceptions are not granted.

Road projects like 44th Avenue, a highly-opposed $100 million endeavor that will really only service Beruff and Neal developments, will see taxpayers, not the developer, picking up the tab. And while developers are quick to note that impact fees can only be used for their specified purpose and can't solve other problems in the budget, it stands to reason that when other monies are paying for things that could in fact be covered by impact fees, it is precisely all of those other problems in the budget that suffer when they are told, sorry, we just can't afford it.

Think about all of the factors associated with new development where none used to exist. A bunch of homes in some previously undeveloped part of the county not only means more water and sewer lines, but Sheriff Department patrols (and the gas that fuels them), more calls for service, more demand for parks and libraries. Does the budget reflect a growth in spending on all of these services that is commensurate with the growth in development? Certainly not. In fact, all of the development in Lakewood Ranch and other east of the interstate development has not produced a single library for that area. And while the Braden River branch, which is closest to that area, has seen a big spike in usage, they've consistently seen their hours and funding cut rather than expanded. Again, these quality of life, government services do little to make our county more attractive. 

The commission also tells residents frequently that some roads and/or port projects are "not county funds." This is to give the impression that it's not your money -- but it is. It is either state or federal funds (your money) slated to come back to the county for projects -- projects that now won't face the same public scrutiny.

South of University Parkway in Sarasota County, the impact fees for a 3 bedroom/2 bath house are $12,035; but just one block north in Manatee County, impact fees for the same house are $6,249. That's a $5,786 disparity. 

That means that for every 1,000 homes built, Sarasota collects $5,786,000 more in revenue then does Manatee in impact fees. There are 30,000 homes slated for build-out in Manatee County over the next 10 years, most to be built north of SR 64+ and in the vicinity of Cortez where infrastructure will have to be extended. Do the math: $173,580,000. That is one hundred and seventy three million, five hundred and eighty-six thousand dollars less than if the homes were built in Sarasota County.

At Wednesday's meeting, Commissioner Benac and Hunzeker invited anyone to come forward with an idea to help them make their budget mark. But when the hammer hit to adjourn the meeting, I went forward and suggested increasing the inept impact fees and getting rid of special approvals, Hunzeker said, "We are looking into that," then turned and walked away. 

There is a hole where all the money goes and they're pouring a concrete slab over it as we speak.


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