Manatee School District partners with county to explore impact fees

BRADENTON -- The Manatee County School Board will take the first step toward reinstating impact fees after voting to work with Manatee County on a fee study under consideration.

In a last-minute agenda item, the school board Tuesday approved spending up to $50,000 to piggyback on a potential county proposal to hire a company to study new construction and impact fees. Impact fees would help provide funding for new schools.

"This is if they choose to do the study," said Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations. "If they do, we'd partner as part of their process."

Before the board can decide whether to reinstate impact fees, it is required to do the study. Working with the county will decrease the cost for both and will ensure data are shared between the two, district officials said Tuesday night.

Board officials said a booming economy, the likes of which hasn't been seen since 2004, is as a good time to study the issue. "We're not entered into full-blown growth mode that's rivaling 2004-05," board member Bob Gause said during the meeting. "It's going to be very difficult for us to meet our needs."

Developers are already balking at the idea and hoping the county and the Manatee County School District will come up with new proposals for paying for schools and roads.

Manatee County was expected to more than double the number of new homes built in 2014 versus six years ago, when construction bottomed at 1,087 homes. New

home construction has been gathering momentum for the past few years. In 2013, 1,950 new homes were built in the county. County tax collectors expected an estimated 2,500 to be built in 2014.

County commissioners approached the school district about discussions around the study, district officials said. The last countywide impact fee study was approved in 2011, said Nick Azzara, spokesman for the county. The next study is slated to happen during 2015 based on state laws, he said, although the process isn't fully under way yet and the request for proposal hasn't been sent out.

"We're not quite to the RFP yet," Azarra said.

Impact fees, which are fees on new developments to help cover the cost for new infrastructure such as roads and schools, have been suspended since July 2009, when the economy tanked. Doing the study does not necessarily mean the board will reinstate the impact fees. "This is just to see whether it's warranted based on what's going on in the community," Hall said.

If impact fees are warranted, the school district and the county would implement fees separately.

It is not clear yet what the cost of the survey will be, but the school district will contribute up to $50,000. The timeline is also unclear, Hall said, because it will depend on the county commission.

If the study is completed and the board then approves reinstating impact fees, the fees would only be able to be used for building new schools or expanding existing schools, Hall said.

"It has to deal with growth," Hall said.

The district is also looking to explore growth, and long-term planning, with another project also in the preliminary stages. The district is looking for a company to complete a comprehensive study looking at economic, social and environmental factors, and report back to the board with recommendations.

That could mean redistricting how the schools currently flow into one another, closing schools, adding on to existing schools or building new ones. Authorizing the money for the potential impact fee study and looking for a company to perform the comprehensive study would have some interaction, Hall said, although impact fees look solely at growth and the comprehensive planning would take other factors into account, too.

While construction numbers are up, members of the Manatee Sarasota Building Industry Association want to see the schools and the county consider alternatives to impact fees. Alan Anderson, the BIA's executive vice president, said while this is probably the right time to study the fees, the district does not yet need more money to build new schools.

An October enrollment survey by the district showed while some schools are above capacity, the district as a whole is at 85 percent of total student capacity.

Anderson said builders would prefer to see a real estate transfer tax used in place of impact fees. Impact fees are generally passed directly from builders in the home price.

A transfer tax would be applied to all home sales, potentially affecting new and existing home sales equally.

"Every time you raise the price of a house $1,000, X amount of buyers are taken out of the market," Anderson said. "It just isn't equitable across the board."

Pat Neal, chairman of Lakewood Ranch homebuilder Neal Communities, said he also wants impact fees or other school-related taxes applied to home sales to more fairly distribute the financial burden. Changes he's discussed with other area builders could include charging fees or taxes based on home size or on the number of bedrooms in a home so childless or retired homebuyers pay less than families with school-age children.

Neal's home sales benefit from having a number of A-rated schools near the company's developments. Neal said he wants to see the district's student population better distributed, and for school performance to rise.

"Schools are important to our field," he said. "People choose locations for quality of life and quality of life includes schools."

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.