Lee County Cuts Impact Fees by 80%
After listening to over two hours of public comment - and despite an impassioned plea by Commissioner Frank Mann to reconsider - the Board of Lee County Commissioners (BoCC) voted 4-1 to reduce Road, Parks and School impact fees by 80% for the next two years in an attempt to create more jobs in Lee.
After Commissioner Tammy Hall read a resolution in honor of the Girl Scouts’ 101stanniversary, the commissioners' rapidly approved both the Consent and Administrative Agendas – including accepting nearly $2 million in grant funds to help low-income residents pay their utility bills and approving the repair of the seawall at New Pass Bridge.
The discussion on impact fees began with Assistant County Manager Holly Schwartz reminding the commissioners of their decision at last week's management and planning (M&P) meeting to pursue a reduction in the rate of collection instead of a suspension.
"No rate was specified, however, so this is a continuation of that public hearing,” she said.
During the lengthy public comment that followed, members of the community of Estero, long-term Lee residents, conservation groups, Darla Letourneau of BikeWalkLee, Bonita City Manager Carl Shwing and Cape Coral Mayor John Sullivan spoke in favor of keeping the fees, saying they are crucial to keeping up with infrastructure improvements as the county grows. Contractors, members of the Building Industry Association, Realtors and former County Commission candidate Sonny Haas urged the Board to move forward with reductions, claiming the cuts will create jobs.
Estero resident Scotty Wood spoke first, urging the commissioners not to suspend the fees.
"I recommend that you not approve the moratorium on impact fees because the county will lose millions of dollars resulting in residents having to pay for extra stress on the county’s infrastructure,” he said. "All our new roads and parks have been largely paid for by these fees. The economy is already turning around; we do not need to give away money. There is no study that says reduction of impact fees stimulates building.”
Nick Batos of the Estero Council of Community Leaders opposed suspension of the fees but offered a compromise.
"Impose a 50% reduction in the fees - except for Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and fire - then approve a 1% increase per month for the next 24 months,” he said. "That way, at the end of two years, we’ll still be down by 26% and you can evaluate if it worked.”
Several contractors and business owners said that reduction of the fees would encourage new businesses to move to Lee County.
Bob Koenig, Chairman of the economic development advisory group called the Horizon Council, told the commission that his committee believes impact fees should be suspended.
"We need to look at this and why we do it,” he said. "We need to be smart about this so we can remain competitive as a county. Let’s see how it works as we move forward.”
Alan Freeman was one of the rare builders who supported the impact fees but suggested a short-term reduction.
"I’m a builder in Lee County and have been for a long time,” he said. "I believe the fees are too high, however, if that’s how you’re going to fund infrastructure then you need to stick with them. Construction is based on supply and demand - not fees. I like Commissioner Kiker’s suggestion of staggering the fees. Ultimately, I think we should reduce them by 40-60% and gradually bring them back up.”
Cape Coral Mayor John Sullivan – speaking as a private resident - said that this involves two separate issues: commercial and private homes.
"People come here for reasons and I don’t think fees will stop them,” he said. "Commercial development, however, is a whole different ballgame because impact fees can be very expensive. I suggest that for them you amortize it over 10-15 years for businesses so they can pay for it.”
Commission Vice-Chairman Larry Kiker thanked everyone for their input.
"Since I’ve been on the board, this is the first time we’ve had a subject that requires this much investigation,” he said. "At the conclusion of our last M&P meeting, we directed our staff to return with an ordinance that will reduce the rates by 80% for two years.”
Mann said he has never and will never support a moratorium on impact fees, and reminded his fellow commissioners why they were put there in the first place.
"I don't think that the building industry is some evil empire and I think it’s unfair that we singled them out,” he said. "I’m just asking everyone to keep their focus on how we pay the bills and what’s the fairest way to do it. Growth requires infrastructure improvements - somebody has to pay for roads, schools and parks. Before the recession, we grew by 100,000 people - that’s the creation of a brand new city! 35 years ago we realized growth was not paying for itself and that taxes continued to creep up so impact fees were created in the mid-80’s to spread that burden over those who are creating it. Without these improvements, our quality of life would be a joke.”
Mann finished by pointing out that Charlotte County currently has the lowest fees in Southwest Florida and very few houses are being built there while Collier County – with the highest fees - are building the most.
Hall said that the county is looking at a loss of $5.1 million over the next two years by reducing the fees.
"What I hope we can do is - as we go through the budget - we make sure certain projects don’t slip and see how we can keep them moving forward. These fees are not going to go away, however, so I hope that the Building Industry Association (BIA) will reach out to the five cities and the School Board to come up with a solution long before the two years are over.”
Chairman Cecil Pendergrass said that - while he is not a builder - he thinks the county should create more jobs and more tax base.
"The numbers speak for themselves - we need to bring people back here,” he said.
At the conclusion of the discussion, Mann made a motion to reduce the fees by 50% rather than 80%, but it died for lack of a second and the remaining commissioners approved the reduction.
Reduction of the fees will result in about $10,000 discount on the average cost of a new home by reducing Lee's surcharge on a new single family home from approximately $12,500 to $2,500. The reduction begins on March 13 and will last until March 13, 2015. County staff will return to the BoCC with a report on the effectiveness of the reduction in one year's time. Fees collected by Fire and EMS services are exempt from the reduction.
The next meeting of the Board of Lee County Commissioners will be held on Tuesday, March 19th at 9:30am at the Old Lee County Courthouse in downtown Fort Myers. For an agenda, visit www.leegov.com.
Keri Hendry Weeg