With a single unanimous vote, the Pasco County Commission has made it much more expensive to develop land in the county, raising some government services fees as much as 400 percent.
But surprisingly, developers are not up in arms. In fact, one of the major builders associations actually encouraged county officials to raise rates — as long as they vastly improve service as well.
“The county has agreed with our developers that they don’t like the level of service they’re providing,” said Jennifer Doerfel, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association. “When they started drilling down into it, they looked at why are we doing this, and why are we doing that. And it’s all because there is a severe lack of funding.”
Before last week, Pasco was one of the cheapest counties in Florida to develop land and build, at least when it came to government fees. For instance, a preliminary development plan for a non-residential project that once cost $50 an acre would now cost $5,000, plus $150 an acre. That means the cost to review a preliminary development plan of a 100-acre project will go from $5,000 to $20,000.
“We have had an increase in development activity, but we’ve had fees that have not been comparable to what other communities charge,” said Carol Clarke, assistant planning and development administrator for the county. “As we looked at all of this, we realized that if we were going to get our staff the technology and resources they would need to do all the things we need them to do, we would have to raise fees.”
The county’s development department is constantly set on overdrive, constantly working overtime and using technology that is easily 20 years old, Clarke said.
“We are on a mainframe,” she said. “Do you know anyone who is still working on a mainframe?”
Because of that, the county would take triple the time neighboring counties would to help get development projects moving. And that’s something county commissioner Kathryn Starkey said during a meeting Aug. 19 that could cost developers a fortune.
“When the permits are held up … one of the developers said $64,000 a day is what it’s costing them,” she said. “And one of them had a two-month delay, so add that up. They are willing to pay $15,000” to prevent having those kind of review delays.
The additional fees will allow the county to immediately hire eight new people for development review, which should speed up some of the permit requests that slowed from lack of manpower. Money also will become available to fund the technological upgrades needed to reduce paperwork and time, and allow developers to easily track progress of their requests online.
It also will eliminate the need to use more than $600,000 each year from property tax coffers currently being used to subsidize the county’s development review department.
“What we looked at was how much was the general property taxpayer underwriting the general review process, and was that appropriate,” county administrator Michele Baker said. “We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They cannot process any faster, and they can’t report any better. So we need a combination of staff and technology.
“The unfortunate circumstance is that we need resources in order to do that, and this is how we’re proposing to help pay for those resources,” she said.
The new fees will bring Pasco more in line with many of its neighboring counties, Clarke said. For instance, a development agreement in Pasco will now cost $10,000. Hillsborough County developers can pay anywhere between $2,500 and $9,800, while in Manatee County, the cost is $15,000, plus advertising. Pinellas County, which is completely built out, charges $1,500.
A preliminary site plan for 100,000 square feet of space on 50 acres will cost $12,500 — higher than both Hillsborough ($3,525) and Pinellas ($7,794), but far cheaper than the $30,000 Manatee charges.
However, not all developers are on board. Craig Weber, a vice president at Crown Community Development involved in such communities as Seven Oaks and WaterGrass, told commissioners during a recent meeting that rates are guaranteed to go up, but service is not guaranteed to improve.
“Here we are with a 400 percent increase,” Weber said. “We are still trying to scratch our way out of a recession and now we’re being hit with this.
“Maybe the fee increase is justified, but there needs to be a corresponding improvement in services and review times in order for it to be competitive.”
The TBBA agrees, and sent a memo to the county late last month to ensure officials are looking to improve response time, so that costly delays in development can be avoided. That means getting back initial comments from an application within 20 days instead of the current 45 days. It also means getting safety inspections done within 24 hours of being requested — and staying focused on only safety.
“I can cite several instances where inspectors are spending an unusual amount of time on an inspection, and comments of concern are focused on items that are not related to site safety,” Doerfel said in the memo. That has required what she has called an “excessive” level of detail.
Commissioner Jack Mariano voted with the rest of the commission to accept the new fees, but said he was a little uneasy about what this might lead to.
“My biggest fear of moving forward with this is that there are more objections out there,” he said. “What I don’t want to do is put us in an uncompetitive situation. I just don’t want to put us in a situation where we get that reputation that we are open for business, and now we have the highest fees.”
See how much Pasco County’s development fees have gone up. Visit tinyurl.com/PascoBuildFees.
Published August 27, 2014
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