Since the Florida State Legislature dropped regulations on developers in 2011, counties have been scrambling to find ways to fund the building and improvement of roads on which new residents will drive. The dropped regulations required, among other things, that developers build schools and parks to accommodate new residents.
Many suggestions have been made over the last few years, but the one called a “mobility fee” sounded like the best to county commissioners.
After many months of discussion and meetings, on April 26 they passed an ordinance enacting mobility fees that will be charged to developers.
Since August 2015, The Observer News has been reporting not only the problems relaxation of regulations on developers has caused residents, but also the problems developers who have already paid fees to begin projects that are not yet finished will have, because they had not budgeted for the mobility fee.
Early in the Observer series, legislators said the rule change in Tallahassee was supposed to spark development — and thereby other businesses as well — but instead created problems because the change backed up critical projects that needed to be done.
With 230,000 new people projected to move to Hillsborough by 2020 and more than 600,000 by 2040, these improvements needed to be done now.
But the just-passed mobility fee will cover only transportation issues such as roads, sidewalks and any other ways new residents will travel. Developers will be charged only to cover the “road miles” their new residents will create.
The fee they will pay starts Jan. 1, 2017, but it still does not cover any of the things developers used to have to pay for under “concurrency” (schools and parks), which is what the program was before Tallahassee legislators dropped the statewide regulations.
The approved mobility fee ordinance contains language in it that determines rates for all scenarios: with or without an accompanying sales tax to help.
The day after the commissioners passed the mobility fee, they voted on putting a sales tax on the November ballot, which they say would greatly help pay for a list of $906 million in prioritized projects move along. That vote failed 4 to 3.
The fact that the projects had been identified and prioritized in order of how critical they are, prompted the Commissioners to publicly compliment county staff.
“Transportation and mobility options remain the significant issue in addressing our community’s quality of life and job competitiveness,” said Lucia Garsys, chief administrator of development and infrastructure services for Hillsborough County.
Transportation issues are always the most expensive improvements.
The Hillsborough County Public Works Department has been quoted multiple times as saying that one “road mile” costs more than 10 new fire stations. That’s partly because so many different kinds of traffic studies must be done to average road miles: how many trips from each development to certain destinations; how many cars will use the road each day, each hour, each minute.
At one developers’ meeting a small business owner expressed concern that his business would have to pay the same as a fast-food restaurant or other high-volume business. But County staff has assured businesses that the fees would be charged by traffic volume, not square feet of the business.
One problem repeatedly pointed out by County Administrator Mike Merrill, is that it will take years to make enough money to make repairs and build new roads if the mobility fee is the only new fee to be enacted.
“The developers (who have already paid and started their projects) have so many credits, it will take us more than 10 years to get them all credited and start actually getting money from this fee,” Merrill has reiterated several times.
Commissioners worry that past mistakes will impede improvements to the point where traffic will gridlock and discourage people — especially job-producing industries and businesses — from coming to the area.
“It’s clear that growth hasn’t paid for itself in Hillsborough County,” said Commissioner Stacy White. “We simply cannot make the mistakes we have in the past.”
A similar sales tax was rejected by voters in 2010.
Because new ways to fund projects must be found, the commissioner plans another workshop sometime in the future but no date has yet been set.
Other stories in this series can be found by going to www.observernews.net, searching “Penny Fletcher,” and scrolling down.