Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 17th 2019

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Funding Santa Rosa’s Growth

By Jeremy Morrison

A while back, Elaine Smith was on Nextdoor.com, a neighborhood-based social media site. The Pace resident noticed there was a sharp spike in chatter among neighbors in the Woodbine Road area about development and traffic.

“There was a deluge,” Smith recalled, explaining how the discussion corresponded with recent housing developments in the area as well as a new strip mall project nearby.

Phil Hoffman, searching for a handyman to work on his multiple properties in Woodbine Springs Plantation, also noticed the talk on the website.

“Instead of, ‘My dog needs walked,’ or, ‘I need a painter,’ it’s filled with complaints about traffic on Woodbine Road,” he said.

Hoffman, too, had noticed a traffic issue along Woodbine—“that rang a bell with me”—particularly on a recent morning when an early-morning dentist appointment drew him out into congested morning traffic full of drivers on their way to start their days.

“Normally a two-and-a-half-minute drive, it took me 22 minutes,” Hoffman remembered.

Hoffman, Smith and other area residents soon organized under the banner Residents of Woodbine Corridor, and then later SRC Voters, to press Santa Rosa County officials to address the strain of increased traffic that an uptick in development had brought to the area’s roads.

The group’s original quest has since expanded. SRC Voters is lobbying for education funding as well and currently finds itself pitted against the area’s development community in a fight to enact impact fees as a source of county revenue to alleviate the impact of growth on infrastructure and schools.

What’s an Impact Fee?
One of the first things Hoffman and his neighbors in SRC Voters did was visit with Santa Rosa County commissioners.

Commission Chairman Sam Parker told them the county had two sources of revenue when it came to addressing local infrastructure needs—property tax millage and the half-cent sales tax, which stands to be raised to a full cent in October. Then, meeting with Commissioner Don Salter, the group learned about a third potential source of revenue—an impact fee.

“Frankly, I didn’t know what an impact fee was,” Hoffman said.

An impact fee is a fee levied by the county on new developments. The fee is for a prescribed amount and goes to fund specific needs, such as infrastructure upgrades.

It quickly became apparent that there was a portion of the community with little appetite for impact fees. During a February county commission meeting, a large contingent of people—many with ties to the construction and development—showed up in red shirts to voice their opposition to the concept.

“The parking lot was absolutely full with people with red shirts on that said ‘homes and jobs’ or something like that,” recalled Smith.

The commission itself doesn’t seem to be entirely keen on impact fees either.

“What are you going to do, add 10 or 15 thousand dollars on to buying a new house? People can’t afford them anyway,” said Commissioner Bob Cole. “It may put it a little bit out of reach.”

Commissioner Lane Lynchard agreed—“$5,000 or $10,000 can really impact the affordability of a house”—and also noted that impact fees are an unsteady source of revenue.

“There are ups and downs in the housing market,” Lynchard said.

The commissioners, instead, point to the county’s half-cent sales tax as the proper source to fund the needed work to local roadways. At one cent, the county will see about $13 million annually and about half that at its current rate.

“It allows growth to be funded by visitors to the county,” Cole said of using the sales tax, explaining that increasing the tax will allow for the needed work to be tackled. “Some of our major congestion areas will be the first thing we attack with this.”

Smart Money
Traffic isn’t the only growth-related issue facing Santa Rosa County. As more families have moved into the area, county schools have swelled in recent years.

Santa Rosa County Schools Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick paints a dire scene concerning capacity.

“We are quickly approaching that limit. We may be at that limit,” Wyrosdick said of his schools’ capacities. “They’re all approaching or already there on capacity.”

If the county’s current growth rate holds, Wyrosdick explained, the school district expects to see around 1,500 new elementary students, nearly 800 new middle schoolers and 900 new high school students over the next decade.

“Generating the need for at least one new school at every level,” the superintendent said.

Santa Rosa County School District currently assesses 1.4 mils in property tax (just shy of its longstanding, self-imposed 1.5-mil ceiling) and levies its own half-cent sales tax, the most amount allowed by law. As such, the school district has exhausted the available revenue sources and is unable to fund the construction of new facilities.

“An impact fee is our last and only resort,” Wyrosdick said.

Without a new infusion of funds via an impact fee assessed to new development, the superintendent said, Santa Rosa’s schools will slip.

“We want a high-quality school system and schools,” Wyrosdick said. “We have to build schools to accommodate that capacity. If schools are overcrowded, that quality diminishes without a doubt.”

Although county commissioners also appear bullish on impact fees where education is concerned, the school superintendent remains hopeful something can be worked out.

“My private, one-on-one conversations—I think there’s some support there,” Wyrosdick said. “We have yet to formally ask them to put it on an agenda for a vote.”

Commissioner Lynchard sounded like he may be open to a discussion about an impact fee for education but said it would require further consideration.

“It’s something that they have to work through, and we have to work through,” Lynchard said.

And what if the schools don’t get a dedicated impact fee? Where then will the money come from to build new schools? Will the commission cut them off a slice of its own sales tax revenue, which stands to double following October’s special election?

“That’s not something I have thought about,” Lynchard said.

This concept is something Commissioner Cole has considered.

“We have considered that. We haven’t put it on the table yet,” Cole said. “I don’t know statutorily if we can. But that has been discussed by me and the county administrator.”

Things People Say
When Hoffman first realized how much opposition there was to the concept of impact fees, he was a little surprised. The development community obviously had interests at stake, but why were the commissioners opposed?

“The question is—why the hell are they saying no to an impact fee?” Hoffman said. “It doesn’t hurt them. Turns out we were wrong; it does hurt them.”

After requesting information about campaign contributions to each commissioner, SRC Voters identified a number of the donors as hailing from the development community.

“When we looked in and got the records on that, it blew us away,” Hoffman said. “It stinks. And they’re not representing us; they’re representing the interest of the developers.”

Cole disagrees—“you’re not buying Bob Cole”—rejecting the notion he’s acting at the behest of contributors.

“They have equal opportunity to donate to a campaign just like any individual or corporation does,” Cole said, dismissing the SRC Voters insinuations. “People are going to say what they’re going to say.”

And people, like Hoffman, certainly will—“In simple terms, we’re being fucked for money.”

In addition to continuing to push for a development impact fee, including a pledge to not support a sales-tax increase without also getting the impact fee, SRC Voters has now set its sights a bit higher, with ambitions to shake up the board of commissioners, specifically targeting the two officials they see as being most indebted to the development community.

“We’ve got two candidates we’re looking at right now,” Hoffman said. “We’re going to replace Parker and Cole.”