Sarasota attorney says talks are under way over what type of action may be taken
With the Sarasota County Commission unanimously having approved new impact fees this week, as requested by the Sarasota County School Board, the attorney for the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association told The Sarasota News Leader his clients have not decided yet whether to bring legal action against the School Board.
“We’ve had several meetings with people who are concerned about [the new fees],” Morgan Bentley, of the Sarasota firm Bentley & Bruning, said in a Jan. 27 interview. Discussion has focused on what kind of challenge might be brought, he added, including whether action should involve specific builders.
During public comments before the School Board voted on Oct. 20, 2015 to re-impose impact fees, Bentley warned of a lawsuit. After that meeting, he told the News Leader he did not believe the fees were warranted based on the research the Tindale Oliver firm of Tampa undertook for the School Board. Moreover, he said, the fees approved on Oct. 20 are supported by 12-year-old documentation that “is so far out of date that it has no relevancy for today.”
Although Superintendent Lori White recommended the School Board adopt new levels that reflected 50 percent of the maximum defensible figures recommended by the Tindale Oliver study, the School Board members voted 3-2 to keep the single-family home rate of $2,032 that was imposed in 2004. The amounts for new multi-family residences and mobile homes — $561 and $188, respectively — reflected 25.9 percent of the maximum levels in the Tindale Oliver study.
Because state law requires a 90-day period before the implementation of any new impact fees, the new fees will not go into effect until May 1 of this year.
Prior to the County Commission’s Jan. 26 vote, Commissioner Christine Robinson also questioned a senior school district planner about enrollment being lower than projected for this year, with fewer new students also estimated for the 2016-17 school year than Tindale Oliver’s research would have indicated.
On the other side of the issue, Dan Lobeck, president of Control Growth Now, implored the commissioners to urge the School Board to set higher fees than those requested. Otherwise, Lobeck said, “the children and the taxpayers are going to be cheated.”
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo made the motion to approve the new fees, pointing out, “We are the collector of this tax. We are not a police force or an oversight committee for the School Board.”
Beth Rozansky, the county’s impact fee administrator, reminded the county commissioners on Jan. 26 that they heard a presentation last month by a representative of Tindale Oliver regarding’s the firm’s growth management study, which was completed in October 2015.
The county board previously set impact fees at the School Board’s request with a unanimous vote in April 2004, Rozansky noted in a Jan. 26 memo to the commissioners. Then, in December 2010, the county board suspended those fees — again, as required by law, at the School Board’s request, the memo points out.
On Jan. 26, during the County Commission’s regular meeting in Sarasota, Rozansky noted that the suspension of the 2004 impact fees ended late last year, as a result of the School Board’s October vote. Therefore, any new residential building permit application submitted on Dec. 15, 2015 or later that leads to the county’s granting a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) will necessitate the assessment of a fee.
Any permits in progress that result in the issuance of a CO prior to Dec. 14, 2016 will be “eligible for the suspension,” she explained.
Robinson then raised her concern about student enrollment, noting that she had watched a recent School Board meeting during which discussion arose about the district being able to put off planning for a new elementary school for another year. The reason, Robinson said, is the lower enrollment for this year and the projection for 2016-17.
Micki Ryan, senior planner for the school district, told Robinson, “Our enrollments are down somewhat this year,” which had necessitated adjustments in the development of the School Board’s five-year capital plan.
“It’s just [a matter of] how fast development comes out of the ground,” Ryan added, referring to the need for impact fee revenue to help pay for new school construction. “We don’t have a crystal ball.”
“Thanks,” Robinson replied.
Lobeck proved to be the only person to address the County Commission during the public hearing. “I see the developers apparently haven’t turned out to speak on this,” he pointed out. “They’re happy,” he continued, because the fees the School Board approved are “a bare one-fourth of the amount that is needed to pay for each increment of growth” Tindale Oliver has projected over the next 25 years.
(A number of developers appeared before the School Board in October 2015 to plead for a continuation of the moratorium on the impact fees.)
Lobeck added that planning under way for more homes east of Interstate-75 and in South County makes it clear that the impact fee money will be a necessity to pay for new schools. For that matter, he noted, most of the district’s elementary schools already are at capacity or beyond capacity.
The Tindale Oliver study projected an average of 400 to 600 additional students enrolling in traditional schools (charter schools were not considered) over the next 25 years, Lobeck continued. “Just because [enrollment is] starting off … a little slow doesn’t mean you don’t need impact fees.”
Without sufficient impact fee revenue, Lobeck said, the School Board “will be forced to rob its capital [budget]” to improve and maintain its existing facilities. Among the ongoing needs are more fencing to keep campuses secure and updated technology, he pointed out.
Therefore, on behalf of his organization, Lobeck urged the County Commission to advocate for the School Board to seek higher impact fees than those under consideration.
After Lobeck concluded his comments, the County Commission moved quickly to pass the fees at the levels the School Board sought. Caragiulo’s motion was seconded by Commissioner Carolyn Mason, and it passed 5-0.