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Palm Coast Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2022 3 months ago

County commissioners criticize school district, but approve school impact fee increase

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The impact fee increase is the district's first since 2004, and raises school impact fees by more than 50%.
by: Jonathan Simmons Senior Editor

"You're playing with our children's future," one resident told the County Commission. "I think you're out of touch," said another. "Do your job, gentlemen," said a third. 

"You work for us. Not the developers, not the bankers, not the real estate people."

 

— NICK DeSANTIS

The speakers were among over a dozen locals who showed up at a March 21 County Commission meeting to urge a reluctant commission to approve a proposal to raise school district impact fees — one-time fees assessed on new home construction to cover school capacity expansion —for the first time since 2004.

School impact fees are determined by the School Board, but require the County Commission's approval. 

Commissioners ultimately approved the increase, but when the public comment period began, they had criticized the school district and four of the five looked poised to vote against the impact fee hike in solidarity with the local residential construction industry association, which has opposed it.

That prompted the angry comments. 

"How is it that you all are elected to represent us — the citizens who live here — and yet you are considering representing an unelected group of people who object to the impact fee raise?" said resident Leslie Johnson. "I'm thinking you should be representing the people who elected you, because these people are not elected."

"You work for us. Not the developers, not the bankers, not the real estate people," resident Nick DeSantis said. "You work for the people here. ... I voted for every one of you up here. I'm ashamed to say that."

"Schools don't build themselves, as you well know," resident Mike Martin said. "... You have an opportunity here to ensure that we will provide, in Flagler County, the best possible education for our children. So I asked you to do the right thing. You don't have to be always thinking about saving developers money."

Only two speakers — one representing the Flagler Home Builders Association, and one representing the local chamber of commerce — opposed the district's proposed impact fee change.

County Commissioner Andy Dance, himself a former School Board member, proposed a compromise: The board could approve the impact fee increase, he suggested, while also arranging meetings to discuss another school funding mechanism that the local building industry group, the Flagler Home Builders Association, had criticized — "proportionate share mitigation payments," the money that developers pay the school district to fund new student stations when their developments would add more students to schools that are already at capacity. 

Commissioners agreed.

The new impact fees will go into effect in September. The impact fee for single-family homes will rise from $3,600 to $5,450 , the fee for multi-family homes will rise from $931 to $1,360, and the fee for mobile homes will rise from $1,066 to $2,150.

The single-family home impact fees, going forward, will also rise by $500 as school district enrollment increases by intervals of 500 students.

 

EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES

The March 21 meeting concluded the school district's months-long effort to get the commission to approve a fee increase. 

"We really, really need you to pass this impact fee for the future of our students and kids."

 

— TREVOR TUCKER, School Board member

The School Board, last August, had initially proposed a much steeper fee hike that would have increased impact fees for single-family homes from $3,600 to $7,175, multi-family homes from $931 to $1,774 and mobile homes from $1,066 to $5,279.

Under state law, districts are limited to impact fee increases that don't exceed 50% over a four-year period — unless they cite "extraordinary circumstances" to justify the steeper increase. 

The school district says it is experiencing "extraordinary circumstances" in the form of unprecedented expected student population growth, and needs impact fees that exceed a 50% increase in order to expand its schools and build new ones.

The district last year commissioned an impact fee study through the consulting firm Tischler Bise, and the firm projected a student population increase of 40% over the coming decade. 

The district adjusted that number down to 23.3%, saying that doing so gave a conservative estimate of the funding needed, and used that lowered figure developed its new proposed impact fee schedule.

But the proposal brought immediate complaints from the Flagler Home Builders Association.

FHBA representatives called the study's projections unrealistic, and pointed out that student population numbers have stayed relatively flat over the last decade, even as the county's overall population has grown. 

When the school district brought its initial proposed fee increase to the County Commission for approval in November, the commission refused to approve the increase.

Instead, it directed the school district to negotiate with the FHBA and come to an agreement before returning to the County Commission for approval. 

 

'GET AN AGREEMENT'

The County Commission's instruction that the school district negotiate its proposed fee increase with the FHBA gave the industry association an unusual degree of involvement in the school district's process of setting its fees.

"Here's the 'extraordinary circumstance' we heard: Growth in the county. Their own facts don't support that that growth in the county means any more people going into school district."

 

— MARK LANGELLO, Flagler Home Builders Association

School Board member Colleen Conklin found that improper. 

"The negotiations should have been between staff of the school district and staff of the county," Colleen Conklin said at the March 21 meeting. 

Industry groups often offer input when elected government bodies consider changes that would affect their industry. But their input is generally confined to calling or emailing officials or speaking during the public comment period at government meetings. 

In keeping with the County Commission's request, the school district held special meetings with FHBA representatives, and, as talks proceeded, moderated its proposed fee increase.

But the FHBA was not satisfied with the district's final proposal, questioning the Tischler-Bise study and arguing for a suspension of proportionate share mitigation payments.

"Here's the 'extraordinary circumstance' we heard: Growth in the county," said Mark Langello, representing the FHBA. "Their own facts don't support that that growth in the county means any more people going into school district. ...  You can do the 50% [increase], but 'extraordinary circumstances' don't exist."

"If mitigation wasn't an issue, I'd say, 'Hey, let's approve the [single-family impact fee increase to] $5,400 today,'" said Greg Blosé, president and CEO of the Palm Coast-Flagler Regional Chamber of Commerce. "... I love the built-in, phased-in approach that comes with counting how many students come in. I think that's really good. But the mitigation is just insane."

County Commissioner Greg Hansen, at the March 21 meeting, faulted the school district for the FHBA's unwillingness to agree to the fee increase.

"We asked the School Board to reach an agreement," Hansen said. "That was your job, and you failed to do it. And that's why we're in this mess today. If you had honestly participated in discussions on this, we could have solved this months ago. But you didn't. You failed to do your job. That's all we asked you to do was come together and get an agreement, and you couldn't do it because you insisted on your way or the highway."

 

A LOGICAL SOLUTION

Commissioners weren't satisfied that the district had established extraordinary circumstances, and Mullins accused the district of ignoring the business community.

"I do believe we are growing very rapidly as a community, but ... I believe it is, and it will be, much more heavily weighted towards the older population."

 

— DONALD O'BRIEN

"All I asked is for some time to occur, that this board wanted the public to have input. You can not ignore business," Mullins said. "... That's happening in our country right now, by shutting stuff down. And we are seeing train wrecks all throughout the nation."

He also levied another, seemingly unrelated, charge at the School Board. 

"The past year I've watched so many things happen in school boards," Mullins said. "So many crazy things occur about books and stuff."

Mullins said he didn't oppose the impact fee increase, but was sympathetic to the home builders' complaints about having to pay proportionate share mitigation payments, comparing the practice to making someone pay their taxes five or 10 years ahead of time.

Commissioner Donald O'Brien didn't trust the district's study.

"I cannot agree with the findings in the Tischler-Bise study that we are at a point of extraordinary circumstances," he said. "I disagree with the student growth projections. I do believe we are growing very rapidly as a community, but ... I believe it is, and it will be, much more heavily weighted towards older population than past data may have indicated."

Dance said that if O'Brien was challenging the study, he should have a fact-based argument to counter it. O'Brien said the study's figures were based on assumptions. 

Commissioner David Sullivan made a motion for a straight 50% fee increase, which would be spread over four years. His motion failed. 

Dance made a motion to grant the school district's proposed fee increase, but have the County Commission, through its existing interlocal agreement with the school district, coordinate discussions on the mitigation process in the future. 

"I think that's a logical solution," O'Brien said.  "... If this is the path to get us forward, I think I can understand that and then agree."

Commissioners approved it 5-0.

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