Rapid population growth in Lee County has been with us for decades.
Starting from a population of 105,000 in 1970, it has now grown to 714,000 in 2018 – a six-fold increase. Since 2010, Lee County has added 135,000 new residents; the equivalent of 16,875 people per year. And the population growth is projected to continue to grow with over 1 million residents (an additional 300,000) projected by 2040.
For almost 50 years, rapid growth has been a hallmark of Lee County. Planning to meet the infrastructure and service needs of a growing population, while protecting the natural and quality of life elements that attracted people to this area, has been the paramount challenge facing the County and its leaders.
For three decades, Lee County, like many fast-growing areas in Florida, imposed impact fees to fund the infrastructure (roads, schools, parks, fire/EMS, etc.) needed as a result of new development, based on the philosophy that “growth should pay for growth.” This approach was based on the County’s long-standing policy of shared responsibility for infrastructure costs and services: developers (impact fees), taxpayers (property taxes), sales and gas taxes (residents and visitors), and bed taxes (visitors). Throughout Florida, growing counties relied on impact fees to keep pace with infrastructure funding demands driven by growth, lessening the burden on existing residents and taxpayers to pay the price for development.
In early 2013 (in a belated response to the 2008 recession’s impact on building industries), Lee County Commissioners voted to slash the collection of County impact fees on roads, schools, and parks.*
The County collected only 20% of the existing fees (established based on factual historical costs) in the unfounded belief that moving those costs away from developers and onto local taxpayers would help the real estate construction industries weather the downturn. However, even as construction in the County rebounded and home sales recovered, the County Commission voted in 2015 and again in 2018 to continue this building industry subsidy by only collecting 45% of the impact fees needed to meet the infrastructure costs of that growth.
(*Note that the BoCC chose not to reduce impact fees for fire and EMS services, which have remained at 100% during this period. No explanation was provided regarding why fire/EMS infrastructure needs necessitated by growth were any different from the infrastructure needs for roads, schools, and parks.)
“As of April 30, 2019, a total of $121 million has been lost over the past six years due to the County’s impact fee reduction policies,” explained Darla Letourneau, who has analyzed the impact fee cut since its inception. “Of that total, $60 million would have gone to County government programs (including $47 million for roads) and $60 million would have been paid to the Lee County School District. These are not projections: they are actual revenue numbers from the County’s Office of Community Development monthly reports.”
LEE COUNTY IMPACT FEE REVENUES WITH COLLECTION
RATE REDUCTION POLICIES: MARCH 13, 2013 – APRIL 30, 2019
($ in millions)
*20% collection rate in 2013-15; and 45% collection rate 2015-19 through April 30, 2019 when latest County monthly reports issued. The 45% collection rate is scheduled to continue until 2023, resulting in 4 more years of revenue losses to come.
As a consequence of the County Commissioners’ decision to slash impact fees, the County’s transportation network and school system haven’t been able to keep up with the needs of new residents and businesses. Thus, our existing infrastructure is overburdened, resulting in congested roadways and crowded schools and declining levels of service. In addition, the bulk of the costs resulting from new development have been shifted to all Lee County residents.
“Schools don’t have the funding they need to succeed and our roads become more deadly by the minute,” expressed Don Eslick, founding member of Lee Future, a community-based advocacy group.
“The bottom line is that we wouldn’t be in this situation if it weren’t for the County’s decision to reduce impact fees.”
Are you wondering what other fast-growing Florida counties have been doing while the Lee County Board continues its policy of slashing impact fees for 10 years (5 years to date and 5 more to go)? According to a 2018 report from the American Planning Association, all of the fast-growing counties in Florida either never reduced their fees during the recession or have since restored them back (either at 100% or are on a glide path to get there).
So, Lee County, whose relative population increase from 2010 to 2018 was the third highest in the State, has done nothing and plans to do nothing to meet the heavy infrastructure needs caused by this fast-pace growth.
“Returning impact fees to 100 percent would have a significant impact on the funding shortfalls for both the school system and the county’s transportation network. It’s time for the Board of County Commissioners to act in the best interest of the people – not the special interests,” said Eslick.
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