Future of Florida's School Impact Fees Cast Into Doubt
Striking a blow to some of the state's fastest-growing districts, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that an adults-only housing complex near Daytona Beach does not have to pay school impact fees because none of its residents are school-age.
Though the immediate reach of the ruling is limited to the specific parties involved in the lawsuit, legal experts say it may hasten the demise of school impact fees statewide—especially when viewed alongside recently-passed legislation that would further limit such fees. Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, is expected to sign the measure.
Impact fees, which are levied on home builders but frequently passed on to home buyers, are used by some local governments to help offset the cost of building new schools. In Florida, only 15 of the state's 67 school districts have impact fees. But those 15 counties account for the overwhelming majority of population growth in the state, said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
In its May 18 decision, the court ruled that the Aberdeen at Ormond Beach Manufactured Housing Community, a mobile home development for people age 55 and older, should not be required to pay impact fees to the Volusia County school system because the development's residents neither contribute to the need for new schools, nor benefit from their construction. As a result of the ruling, the 61,000-student district will be required to reimburse Aberdeen residents a total of about $90,000, or roughly $1,100 per unit.
Shifting the Burden?
Volusia County schools Superintendent William E. Hall said that the Aberdeen residents will, indeed, affect the school district because they could enroll in the district's community education program, or use school buildings for emergency shelter during natural disasters.
"Some of them will tell you they are paying property taxes," Mr. Hall said. "But growth doesn't pay for itself in Florida. Without the school impact fee, that burden will be shifted to other segments of our society."
Keith Hetrick, the general counsel for the Florida Home Builders' Association, said that even though the case was limited to impact fees in an adults-only housing complex, the ruling illustrates why impact fees are an inappropriate and inefficient way to pay for new schools in high-growth communities. Most growth comes not from new developments, he said, but from younger families moving into existing properties.
"We have to have monies paid for by everybody that benefit everybody, and an impact fee is not designed to do that," Mr. Hetrick said. "It's paid for only by a small fraction of growth, and it doesn't cover the growth needs of a community."
The ruling comes weeks after state lawmakers voted on May 5 to approve a measure that would ban impact fees in the 51 counties in the state that currently don't have them, and cap the fees in the counties that do. At the last minute, lawmakers approved an amendment that would permit Pasco County to charge the fees because of a county plan that was already in place to do so.
State Aid in Lieu of Fees
As a compromise measure supported by both the state school boards group and the builders' association, the bill provides $50 million that would be spread throughout the 16 county districts to replace much of the revenue they had been raising through the existing fees. The money accounts for 62.5 percent of the funds the districts have generated from impact fees in the current fiscal year. The counties, in turn, are permitted to levy impact fees equal to the remaining 37.5 percent—but are not permitted to levy fees raising more than that amount.
The decision effectively does away with local decisionmaking power as it pertains to impact fees, said Rep. Carole Green, a Republican.
"If local county councils determine that is the thing to do, if our local school boards want to do it, they should be able to do it," Ms. Green said. "We talk about local control all the time, but here's an example of when we've done the exact opposite of what we've said."
But Mr. Hetrick of the home builders' association maintained that the measure was perhaps an awkward, but ultimately forward-thinking step toward doing away with the fees entirely and coming up with a more broad-based funding source next legislative session.
"The fundamental goal of public education has always been that it's a shared service," Mr. Hetrick said. "In a growth situation, everybody should be paying their fair share."
Vol. 19, Issue 38, Page 17