Recently, the Manatee County Commission has made several troubling decisions regarding the prioritization of roadway projects, even going so far as eliminating the use of local funds, mostly generated from development impact fees. This change will now use state and federal funds, robbing scarce dollars needed to eliminate traffic congestion in our downtown areas. State law, along with Manatee County's own comp plan, requires “new development pay for its fair share of the cost of County Capital Facilities required to accommodate new development through the imposition of Impact Fees.” Using state and federal dollars to subsidize private developers does not meet that criteria, nor is it a square deal for citizens.
Since Governor Scott gutted the Department of Community Affairs, there exists almost no oversight of local government growth plans and approvals. Instead, we now have the Department of Economic Opportunity and its short-sided focus on the number of projected jobs it can report, rather than true sustainable growth or quality of life considerations. Our local Florida Senator, Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton), is following suit with a proposed bill that would eliminate Development of Regional Impact (DRI) requirements, since he feels that local government can provide the expertise. However, from the recent county approvals of incompatible and sprawling developments, to subsidizing what developers would pay in impact fees for roads, it becomes evident that state oversight is sorely needed.
Policies that reflect a philosophy that new growth must pay for the road improvements it requires, have been established for over 20 years, yet we are seeing a clear divergence in these recent decisions. Let us use University Parkway and the I-75 interchange and its experimental fix of over $60 million as one example. 20 years ago there were no developments east of the Interstate, so it would be safe to say that the original property owner, who owned most of this land; Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, developed Lakewood Ranch and should have to pay for the current needs of the roadways. Why else would we need them?
The developers presented the plans, along with the required traffic studies, while giving assurances that the Level of Service would be maintained. Betsy Benac, now a Manatee County Commissioner, represented most of these plans, and had they been accurate, we would not have failing roads. Benac recently voted to ask the state to pay for what should have been her ex-client's responsibilities. Benac also worked for Benderson Development, who now owns most of the property surrounding the I-75/University intersection and should be responsible for paying for needed improvements. Yet again, we do not see Commissioner Benac holding the developers she worked for accountable. Instead, she expects the taxpayers to foot the bill.
There is no doubt that the roads are congested in this area and need to be improved, but we have to recognize that our current system of trusting development procedures to insure that growth actually is paying for itself, has failed, at the very least, the intent of our laws, if not the laws themselves. We need new policies so that this failure does not continue to swallow up taxpayer money in order to pad the coffers of developers.
44th Avenue is another roadway for which the county commission recently substituted state and federal dollars for what should have been paid for by developers, in order for SMR to maintain the level of services in their Lakewood Ranch development. So why are taxpayers again footing the bill? As a commissioner, I suggested that SMR realize those costs, as intended. The traffic studies that the county produced showed that these improvements were indeed needed, and since you have mostly one property owner east of the interstate, enforcing the requirement would have been simple. Maybe this is one of the reasons that developers spent so much money getting me replaced with one of their own.
The State of Florida even created a new taxing district for SMR called a stewardship district, in order to fund these and other improvements needed for their development. So far, they have not used this district to pay for all of the needed improvements. Meanwhile, developers are making record profits at the expense of the taxpayers.
An even bigger consideration is the effects of losing the money that developers are not paying. It's one thing to have taxpayers in effect subsidizing new and profitable growth, but when money is taken from one pot to be given to another, it impacts our ability to fund other projects, such as improvements to critically-congested corridors like the DeSoto and Green bridges, where they intersect with Manatee Avenue. How many of us get stuck now in traffic that is backed-up because of these intersections, as people enter and leave downtown? It routinely gets so bad that the turning vehicles cannot clear the through lanes when the signals change. Don't get mad at the driver, it's not their fault. It is the failure to keep up with needed improvements. It is not just a downtown/city issue either. These corridors impact all of us.
I submitted concepts over 10 years ago to improve these areas and pushed for several projects, but for too many others on the board, there was never a sense of urgency. These projects are unavoidable and will come at significant cost, which could be as high as a few hundred million dollars, and they only get more expensive the longer we put them off. Even if we made them a top priority today, it could take 15 years to get a project done. Still, that sense of urgency doesn't seem to have grown among board members, yet we see Commissioners like Vanessa Baugh rushing to Tallahassee in order to get funds for what developers were required to pay for. Why is there no such passion for the other congestion problems?
It's sad to say, but the only difference I see between funding for downtown and I-75 is that the citizens can't supply the kind of fundraising dollars that the developers routinely throw around, lining campaign accounts from local elected officials all the way to Congress. Isn’t our downtown just as congested as University and I-75? One look at the map of developer-owned property and their corresponding political donations and it's impossible to think that they are only expecting access to their elected officials. There's an old saying: if a plan doesn't make sense, it must be political. But it's nothing short of political corruption if those donations come with an expectation of something in return.
So why are impact fees not paying what they used to? County Administrator Ed Hunzeker wanted it that way, plain and simple. Hunzeker took over the impact fee study completed in 2011. During the recession, the majority of the BOCC voted to reduce impact fees in half, even though every report said it would not stimulate growth or increase jobs. But Hunzeker wanted to cut impact fees, so he changed the policy framework in which impact fees are calculated. It is evident that his goal was to reduce the impact fees in order to favor the developers, who meanwhile, brag about their record profits. It is also evident now that the impact fees have been too low, otherwise we wouldn't have to use state and federal dollars to pay for our failing local roads. It's simple math: expenses for roads needed for growth equals impact fee revenues and developer funded roads – unless that is, you want to ignore laws and policies for the benefit of special interests.
Another simple method we could use would be to establish what I call Infrastructure Planning Areas, and use them as a business plan for not only roads, but schools, parks and other needs created by growth. This becomes a financial plan and creates an easy way to measure accurate cost of growth. Our current system does not even relate impact fees to specific road projects needed for that growth. How does this make sense? Hunzeker is an accountant and he should have accountability!
The recent change in MPO priorities approved by commissioners also violate the Long Range Plan (LRP), a document required by the federal government for the use of federal funds, and one that the board must be consistent with. The most recent LRP placed the priority on mass transit and had projects like Bus Rapid Transit. Now the commission wants to change priorities set in the LRP, replacing Bus Rapid Transit with a section of 44th Avenue, in their words “effectively promoting it from cost-feasible-with-local-funds to cost-feasible-with-Federal-funds.” This shift in policy might sound harmless, but the LRP option without a mass transit focus included more roads, and that costs even more money. The total growth plan will not have enough money to pay for these new roads without impact fees or required developer improvements, creating still more problems down the line.
Amazingly enough, Hunzeker is working on a plan called How Will We Grow?, a fancy phrase which, based on his past performance (along with that of the majority of the commission), will only reinforce these current practices. Quality of life is important anywhere, but has always been at the heart of what residents treasure about Manatee County. However, as long as administrators and elected officials continue to place the bottom line of deep-pocketed developers above what is best for the vast majority of people who live in this wonderful community, I'm afraid we already know the answer to Mr. Hunzeker's question.
Joe McClash is a 22-year veteran of the Manatee County Commission and the publisher of The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.