Manatee County School Board stays the course on impact fees, sales tax combo

BRADENTON -- Despite blistering criticism from the public and other elected officials Tuesday, the Manatee County School Board passed on a chance to remove a controversial caveat between impact fees and the half-cent sales tax.

Board member Dave Miner, who brought the issue forward and was the lone yes vote to remove the link, said he thought a change in course would help pave the way to an easier renewal of the Manatee County School District's current half-cent sales tax.

Voters must approve the extension, and some have said they would not if the caveat with the impact fees is in place.

"I think it's been alluded to so far tonight. We need the money," Miner said.

Miner first brought the idea of removing the link at the previous board meeting and the board approved scheduling the issue for a vote Tuesday. The vote failed even though board members agreed the sales tax is more critical than impact fees.

"I don't know what the right answer is, I'll be honest with you," board member Bob Gause said. "To me, getting the sales tax extended is the most important thing."

The sales tax revenue is a bigger and more flexible pot of money for a district planning to build and renovate schools in the next decade.

Gause said he is swayed by whatever Superintendent Diana Greene wants to do.

"I won't turn down funding," Greene said, adding only five of 60 Manatee County School District projects since 2009, when school impact fees were suspended, could have been funded through impact fees. "Once again, overwhelmingly, the school district will need a half-cent sales tax. The school district benefits from impact fees, however, the school district cannot survive without a half-cent sales tax."

The board sent a resolution to commissioners in November, asking them to reinstate school-based impact fees based on a state-mandated study that helps calculate what can be collected on new developments. School impact fees are used to help handle growth in the county, including building new schools, buying new buses or adding on to existing schools.

Greene recommended a three-year implementation schedule, collecting 50 percent of the maximum allowed impact fees the first year, 75 percent of the maximum the second year and 100 percent of the maximum in the third year and onward.

The board added a caveat, saying if the community voted to extend an existing half-cent sales tax in the county, the impact fee collection rate would drop back to 50 percent.

The Manatee County Commission approved the school board resolution with that caveat, but many commissioners questioned why the board chose to link impact fees and the sales taxes. The issue has continued to arise since the vote.

Even more members of the public questioned the decision Tuesday.

"I don't understand that," resident Ed Goff said. He added it would be great if the school district could collect 100 percent of the impact fees and the sales tax.

Goff said the district was paying off the developers to try to pass the sales tax. He said it would have been cheaper to hire a public relations firm to launch a campaign to pass the sales tax extension.

But there's another option, he said.

"If you had more faith in the residents of Manatee County and earned their trust it wouldn't cost anything because what we want most is a top-rated school system," he said.

The school sales tax sunsets in 2017 and, although the board has yet to pass a resolution, it is expected voters will take action on the extension this November.

The sales tax brings in about $30 million per year for the district.

The first year of impact fees, at the 50 percent collection rate, is expected to bring in $6.6 million.

The school board has not yet formally passed a resolution to put the renewal of the half-cent sales tax on the ballot in November. The board would have a question on the November ballot or could pay for a special election later.

Manatee County commissioners have also started exploring trying to have voters pass another half-cent sales tax to benefit county projects. The county talks are in beginning stages and officials want to plan a meeting between the two boards to discuss.

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

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