At the writing of this column, the Santa Rosa County School District board is preparing to vote whether or not to ask the county commission to bring back impact fees to fund new school construction.
If the board votes yes, this increasingly popular topic will be before our five county commissioners — not as a suggestion from constituents who have varying degrees of familiarity with governmental fundraising woes, but from the county entity at least partly responsible for drawing so many new people to Santa Rosa County.
In Antonio Apap’s letter to this publication and others, he notes, in short, the county’s growth is putting its schools at capacity. And building the requisite four new schools (two K-8, two high schools) will cost more than the county has been making in half-cent sales taxes — by $10.76 million annually. Apap proposes three options: borrow, increase taxes, or adopt a school impact fee. What else is there? Does the county have $10 million plus of anything it could sell annually?
Before this crisis of infrastructure and school crowding exploded into social media and the news, the conventional wisdom said Santa Rosa County will attract new business and new residential construction by the fact that, among other things, we’re not taxing you, business owner, for setting up shop in the county.
The county has had an identity problem, something I learned in more detail from Economic Development Director Shannon Ogletree, but something I also know from living here. Western residents of the county may push for Pea Ridge pride and I’ve heard a slight clamor in the east for some recognition of East Milton as separate from Milton.
However, take the slightest step back and suddenly Pace and Milton are “the Pensacola area.” Pensacola Beach even spills into Gulf Breeze.
All of this is to say that I sympathize with Ogletree’s situation. I imagine the conversation goes like this: “You should consider building in Santa Rosa County."
“We don’t have impact fees.”
“Oh, that’s Navarre Beach, right?”
Despite whatever the resistance to re-instituting impact fees is, the fact is the county needs more money than it’s making. So if impact fees are the best way to bring in money, here’s my pitch — you’re damn right we’re charging them, because Santa Rosa County is worth it.
Did you notice we’re on the water, Mr. Business or Residential Developer? Did you read about our award-winning Naval Air Station Whiting Field and strong military presence? Did you know our schools are so good we need to build more? Do you know of other counties with such strong agriculture combined with historical, coastal, and agri-tourism? Does our low crime-rate tempt you? It should.
What we lack in the brand recognition of a New Orleans or Miami we make up for where it counts — substance. Don’t charge impact fees as if we’re desperate. In my experience, desperation isn’t attractive. Charge because we’re quality. Santa Rosa County has always thought it’s quality. Now, it’s time to act like it.
Aaron Little is the editor of the Santa Rosa Press Gazette and the Crestview News Bulletin. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org