Two board members raise concerns about using impact fee funds for anything but purchases of land and school facility construction
After two Sarasota County School Board members raised concern about the plan during their Feb. 21 work session, incoming Superintendent Todd Bowden proposed that no impact fee revenue would be used to pay for furniture and equipment at the new Suncoast Technical College in North Port.
Although the board legally could use impact fee funds for that purpose, district staff explained, “adult education was never contemplated” as a focus for such an expenditure, Bowden said.
Board member Eric Robinson — who was sworn in in late November 2016 — first raised the question when Al Weidner, the district’s retiring deputy chief financial officer, explained the latest draft of the board’s budget for the 2017-18 school year; that is when the new Suncoast Technical College (STC) will open in North Port.
“Sales tax collections are coming in a little better,” Weidner said, “and our impact fees are also coming in greater than what we originally budgeted.”
(The board voted in October 2015 to reinstate the impact fees, whose collection they had put on hold for five years, during the aftermath of the Great Recession.)
Because of those higher figures, Weidner told the board on Feb. 21, he would “highly recommend” that the budget include $400,000 from impact fee revenue to pay for furniture and equipment at the North Port STC.
When Robinson asked for clarification about that plan, Weidner replied that, under the provisions of the impact fee ordinance the board has in place, the revenue can be used to cover any expense related to new growth in a district. In fact, Weidner added, impact fee revenue paid for the property where the new technical college is under construction.
However, School Board member Bridget replied that when the board voted 3-2 to put the fees back into effect, the plan was to use the resulting funds to pay for new schools to handle the increased enrollment that had been projected.
Robinson pointed out that he just listened to the board discussion on the issue, because he was not a member at the time. His recollection, he continued, was that “there was … a critical need of making sure we had money for new schools.”
As long as the impact fee revenue is used for purposes linked to new growth, Weidner replied, it is a matter of the board deciding on the specific expenditures.
“Did you guys vote on that shift?” Robinson asked his colleagues asked about the use of the revenue for what staff refers to as “FFE”: furniture, fixtures and equipment.
“I don’t think that it ever came to us,” long-time board member Shirley Brown told him. Her understanding, she added, is that staff decides “how best to use [impact fee revenue].”
Board member Jane Goodwin also pointed out that, under the law, impact fee revenue has to be used within five years after it has been collected, or it reverts to the entities that paid it.
Mitsi Corcoran, the district’s chief financial officer, explained that Weidner “is just proposing how to fund the FFE” without having to use state money allocated for technical colleges. (
(The district received $7.1 million in workforce development funds for the current fiscal year, Weidner noted. The amount is divided between the main STC campus in Sarasota and the STC in North Port.)
The extra $400,000 Weidner referenced, Corcoran continued, resulted from the higher ad valorem tax revenue — a result of the district’s property value climbing about 9% in 2016 — plus the higher sales tax and impact fee collections, as well as more money from the 1.5-mill tax assessed county property owners to pay for capital projects in the district. If the board would prefer no impact fee revenue was used for the North Port STC furniture and equipment, she added, “that is fine.”
Ziegler said she was relieved to know she had not failed to remember directing staff to use the impact fee revenue for the FFE expense. Her recollection, Ziegler continued, was that the purpose of reinstating the fees “was to … stockpile money essentially for future purchases and development, not projects that we had already approved and moved forward with.”
She was not in favor of allocating impact fee revenue for any purpose but buying land for new schools and constructing the schools, she told her colleagues.
If the board used the money for FFE, Robinson asked, how would that affect its ability to, as Ziegler put it, “‘stockpile money?’”
Retiring Superintendent Lori White explained that that would be part of the upcoming discussion on the agenda regarding capital projects for the next five years.
Looking ahead to capital expenses
When Kathie Ebaugh, the district’s planning director, and Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe started their discussion of the district’s draft Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for the next five fiscal years — starting in 2017-18 — Ebaugh pointed out that the plan calls for building the next elementary school with cash allocated to that program from a variety of sources.
Additionally, she said, the CIP includes the addition of a 400-student wing at Venice High School, paid for with cash. Both projects will respond to student growth, she noted.
“How critical is it to make sure that we build up reserves in order to build these new schools?” Robinson asked.
Impact fees make up only a portion of the revenue projected for the CIP over the next five years, Ebaugh said. She calculated that it would represent about $17.5 million of the $67 million total.
“We are doing very well” in collecting revenue for and managing projects in the CIP, Ebaugh replied, adding that staff works within the funding projections in planning each five-year CIP.
She added that the district also would be able to buy land for a new high school in the plan that would go into effect in 2017-18.
Ziegler again talked of her concern about using the impact fee revenue for anything but new property purchases and construction. She indicated that it would be a matter of the board members going back on the word they gave county taxpayers in re-implementing the fees.
“That was exactly my point,” Robinson said.
Even though the board will take the “pay-as-you-go” path for the new elementary school and the new student wing at Venice High, White said, “you don’t pay as you go for a high school. … You can’t really save enough” in impact fee revenue for that large a facility. No district in the state builds a high school, White added, “without borrowing or [using] a separate allocation from the state.”
Brown pointed out that the new North Port STC will serve high school students as well as adults, “so I don’t see us breaking any promises.”
Finally, incoming Superintendent Bowden told the board he had conferred with CFO Corcoran. She had calculated how the board could use just revenue from its capital millage levy to pay for the furniture and equipment at the new technical college, he said. Therefore, his suggestion was to do that and let the impact fee revenue accrue.