Growth (not today’s taxpayers) must pay for growth – a lesson Collier County learned and Lee County ignored by deeply discounting impact fees meant to pay for crucial infrastructure needed to meet the demands of today development. By looking at Collier’s lesson, we see that Lee’s failure to collect full impact fees has left the county (and its taxpayers) with a growing infrastructure deficit while it had no appreciable effect on development.
Lee Future urges Lee County commissioners to learn from your mistakes and return to 100% impact fee collection before the growth funding shortfall gets any worse.
OpEd Originally Published in the News-Press on November 22, 2019
“…[i]Impact fees have been a success in Collier County” the News-Press editorial stated on November 14. What a contrast to Lee, where impact fees were originally discounted an astounding 80% in 2013, then, after an uproar, discounted by 55% in 2015. So what have these reductions brought us?
To date, our Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) has forfeited $137 million since reducing developers’ impact fees, which are meant to build roads, parks and schools to accommodate new residents. The latest county report, in fact, shows that by 2023, growth will require $226 million for increased amenities and services. To date, only $89 million of that total has been collected, leaving a shortfall of $137 million.
Yet roads, parks and schools must still be built. Higher property assessments have increased tax revenues, but services and amenities have not grown in proportion to our population. Rather, the BoCC brags that there has been no decrease in services, a dubious boast indeed. And it’s not even that hard choices are being made; the choice is really between helping developers and serving residents.
Because of new development, Lee County has an ambitious road building plan, claiming that gas tax revenue will “primarily” pay for it. Yet money from gas taxes is decreasing as people buy more fuel efficient vehicles and gas taxes remain stable.
Eventually, to fulfill its promises, the county will have to borrow to build new roads – with the interest being paid by taxpayers. With Florida statutes requiring that counties balance their budgets, money must then be shifted from one pocket to the other, resulting in even further funding cuts to county programs.
So what could we do with $137 million if it did not go to building roads that developers should be paying for?
One underfunded program is early childhood learning, of critical importance since 40% of Lee children in 2018 entering kindergarten were found to be unprepared, according to the Florida Department of Education. Today, 1,000 plus children are on the waiting list for this program. Sadly, county funding has failed to keep up with demand.
Mental health funding is another area. Florida ranks last among the states in paying for mental health treatment. Within the state, Lee spends the least on mental health services, according to 2015 data, the latest available (as reported by the News-Press in 2018).
Here, we spend about $36 per capita for adults and children; the national average is $146. This lack of public funding results in families looking for help only once a crisis hits, thus costing more because cheaper, early intervention services are unavailable.
Our BoCC wants to grow our way out of this mess, believing that the answer lies in having greater numbers of residents make up the deficit for new infrastructure projects. But by 2023, our lost impact fees will total $267 million and our population will have increased by more than 10%. We’ll continue to choke on car fumes, our schools will be overcrowded, and our parks overgrown. Today’s loss of $137 million will seem paltry.
The solution? Why keep these deep discounted fees until 2023 as the BoCC plans? Raise them to 100% – now, and start improving the quality of life in our county – now.
Collier’s 100% impact fees have provided an “infrastructure that is among the best in the state,” according to the News-Press editorial. Why can’t that happen in Lee?
– Charlotte Newton, Women For a Better Lee
Women For a Better Lee is a movement led by women and comprised of Lee County voters who seek good governance, smartly-planned growth and a more livable community. To get on their mailing list, email: WFBL2020@gmail.com; Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/WomenForABetterLee