School district employee’s remarks to the Venice Council leads to County Commission vote on communications regarding school impact fees

Christine Robinson raises concerns about other county governing boards protesting the level of the new fees to her board; in the meantime, a public hearing on the fees is set for Jan. 26

Kathie Ebaugh. File photo
Kathie Ebaugh. File photo

The Dec. 8 Sarasota County Commission agenda item said simply, “To authorize a public hearing on an ordinance amending Article VIII, Chapter 70 of the County Code, relating to Educational Impact Fees.” But it led to more than a vote on that topic after a commissioner told her colleagues about a Sarasota County School District employee’s recent comment to the Venice City Council.

After a five-year moratorium on impact fees, prompted by the Great Recession, the School Board voted 3-2 on Oct. 20 to ask the County Commission to implement fees once again. The School Board set the total for a new single-family home at $2,032, the same rate in place prior to the moratorium, which began in 2010. Because the School Board this year authorized an updated study of educational impact fees by the Tampa-based Tindale Oliver firm, the Oct. 20 vote essentially set the new assessments at 25.9 percent of the full, legally defensible levels.

Therefore, Steve Tindale, CEO of Tindale Oliver, explained to the County Commission this week, the fees the School Board is requesting for multi-family housing units and mobile homes are $561 and $187, respectively.

The maximum defensible amounts supported by the Tindale Oliver study are $7,835 for a single-family home, $474 for a multi-family dwelling and $138 for a mobile home, according to the Tindale Oliver report.

Following Tindale’s presentation, Commissioner Charles Hines made a motion to authorize the advertisement of the public hearing on imposing the new fees. The hearing will be held during the afternoon session of the County Commission’s regular meeting on Jan. 26, 2016, in Sarasota, which will start at 1:30 p.m., according to the legal advertisement prepared for the board’s review.

Steve Tindale. News Leader photo
Steve Tindale. News Leader photo

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo seconded the motion.

“Great information,” Hines told Steve Tindale. “I have three children, and this helps a lot.”

The motion passed unanimously.

In the meantime, the moratorium will end on Dec. 14, Tindale told the board, meaning the 2004 single-family home fee of $2.032 the School Board set — and the County Commission approved — will go into effect. Assuming the County Commission approves the new fees on Jan. 26, he pointed out, a 90-day waiting period will ensue, by law, before those will become effective.

Whose responsibility?

After the vote on the public hearing, Commissioner Christine Robinson asked to be heard on a related matter.

A chart shows the new school impact fees requested by the School Board, compared to the full level supported by the Tindale Oliver study. Image courtesy School Board
A chart shows the new school impact fees requested by the School Board, compared to the current level as well as the full level supported by the Tindale Oliver study. Image courtesy School Board

She watched the Nov. 18 regular meeting of the Venice City Council, she told her colleagues, which included a presentation about the Tindale Oliver growth management study for the School Board. During the council’s discussion with the school district’s planning director, Kathie Ebaugh, Robinson continued, Councilman Fred Fraize voiced displeasure with the level of impact fees the School Board settled on in October. Then Mayor John Holic said, “‘I would suggest, Mr. Fraize, I think you are preaching to the choir,’” Robinson told her colleagues, noting that she had written down the quotes.

At one point, Robinson said, Ebaugh told the council members, “Ultimately, it is the County Commission’s decision” about setting the impact fees. “She pointed them in our direction,” Robinson added of Ebaugh.

Furthermore, Fraize had asked Venice city staff to put an item on the council’s Dec. 8 meeting agenda that calls for discussion of higher school impact fees, Robinson noted.

In a Nov. 19 email he sent to a city staff member, Fraize wrote, “The city would do a letter to the county requesting that school impact fees be adjusted to the 50% level” that School Superintendent Lori White had recommended.

The agenda item, though, called for discussion about whether to send such a letter to the School Board, Robinson pointed out.

Fraize added in his email that he hoped other municipalities would join the Venice board in calling for the higher fees, she continued.

A graphic shows how demand for new elementary schools will increase in Sarasota County. Image courtesy School Board
A graphic shows how demand for new elementary schools will increase in Sarasota County. Image courtesy School Board

In subsequent conversations with School Board members, Robinson said, she learned that it was not their intention to have a municipality’s request for higher fees directed to the County Commission. “This is School Board planning, School Board study, School Board budget, School Board recommendation,” Robinson added of the impact fee issue. Yet, a district staff member had referred the matter to the County Commission, she noted.

“I would like the board to consider a motion,” Robinson said: If the County Commission receives any recommendation from any other government entity or organization regarding the level of the school impact fees, the County Commission should send the communication to the School Board prior to the January public hearing.

Vice Chair Al Maio seconded the motion.

County Commission Vice Chair Al Maio. File photo
County Commission Vice Chair Al Maio. File photo

“We have to do our best to maintain relationships with each of the cities, the school district … Going to one of the duly elected boards and saying, ‘If you don’t like this … send a letter to the County Commission — if, in fact, that was what was done, it seems inappropriate,” Maio said. “That’s just dragging us into a fight they want to have,” he added of the Venice Council.

In defense of Fraize, however, Maio said he thought the councilman is new to that city board.

The motion passed 5-0.

Later that day, developer Pat Neal appeared during the Hearing of Citizens portion of the School Board meeting to talk, as he put it, about “the actions of your staff that might not be consistent with your decisions.”

He explained what most concerned him was that when Ebaugh was asked whether she supported the board’s decision or Superintendent Lori White’s recommendation that the School Board adopt the new fees at 50 percent of the level supported by the Tindale Oliver study, she seemed to side with White “rather than the board’s adoption of 26 percent.”

In her defense, he continued, Ebaugh was responding to a council member’s question. Nonetheless, he said, “I respectfully submit to you that her more accurate answer would have been to support the board’s decision.”

His goal in appearing before them that afternoon, Neal pointed out, was to make the School Board members aware of what had happened “and respectfully ask and suggest that you direct your staff to support your actions as a constitutionally elected board when such questions are put to them” in their presentations [to other elected boards].”

“Thank you for bringing that to our attention,” Board Chair Shirley Brown responded.

In a telephone interview later that day with The Sarasota News Leader, Brown said, “Once the board takes the position, the rest of the board should support that, as should the staff.” She pointed out that she originally made a motion calling for the 50-percent level of fees White had recommended, but her motion failed.

The Venice City Council discussion

In a review of the Nov. 18 video of the Venice City Council meeting, the News Leader found that during the discussion following Ebaugh’s presentation, Fraize said he thought he recalled that Superintendent White had recommended the School Board adopt 50 percent of the full impact fee level recommended in the Tindale Oliver study, which would have put the expense for a new single-family home at $3,917. Ebaugh said his memory was correct.

“I don’t think the School [Board] is listening to [White] or listening to the taxpayers,” Fraize added. Referring to the single-family home amount the board approved on Oct. 20, he continued, “That’s abysmal.”

A chart lists potential costs of new schools. Image courtesy School Board
A chart lists potential costs of new schools. Image courtesy School Board

Ebaugh pointed out that the School Board could raise the levels over the next four or five years, the period during which the Tindale Oliver figures still will be legally defensible.

Given the fact the Tindale Oliver report says the new schools needed over the next 10 years will cost about $326 million, Fraize noted, the newly implemented impact fees will mean taxpayers will be covering 60-65 percent of the cost. “That’s a significant burden. … Two thousand dollars a home is not fair and equitable.”

“I think you’re speaking to the choir here,” Mayor Holic told him, adding that he was surprised that no mention of the school impact fees was made as city staff worked with county staff on agenda items for the council’s upcoming joint meeting with the County Commission, “who has control of [the fees].”

Holic added that the council members needed to address the matter with the governing body “that does have the control over it.”

Later, Ebaugh told the council members that she thought the School Board members “wanted to be prudent” in starting out with a lower rate after the moratorium. She added, “Ultimately, it’s the County Commission’s decision.”

School district responses

Scott Lempe. File photo
Scott Lempe. File photo

During a Dec. 9 telephone interview with Deputy Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Scott Lempe, the News Leader learned that Lempe had listened to an audio recording of the Nov. 18 Venice City Council meeting. (White was participating in training at Harvard University, School Board Chair Brown explained the previous day.)

“Part of the confusion is the context,” Lempe said, noting that he had discussed the Venice Council comments with Ebaugh. (She was on vacation and could not speak with the News Leader this week, Lempe noted.)

Ebaugh was talking about the process, Lempe continued. Although the School Board votes on the level of the fees, by law, the County Commission must vote to set the fees. “The ordinance is now in the hands of the County Commission,” he added. “Her goal was not to push the responsibility away from the School Board.”

“The whole conversation’s kind of a political hot potato,” Lempe told the News Leader. “Over time, I think [the School Board members] will continue to try to keep their eye on [new school] costs.”

Ebaugh has been making presentations to all the municipalities about the Tindale Oliver growth management study, Lempe noted, so their board members will understand what lies ahead. “No hidden agenda,” he added.

The Longboat Key Town Commission was the only governing body that did not want to see it, he noted.

Now it is up to the County Commission to vote on an ordinance setting the new fees the School Board has requested, Lempe reiterated.

As for the Dec. 8 Venice City Council agenda item about the school assessments, Pam Johnson, the city’s public information officer, told the News Leader on Dec. 9, “No action was taken.” The consensus of the council members, she added, is that setting the fees is the purview of the School Board.