MILTON — Santa Rosa County School District officials called its proposal to charge a $5,000 impact fee on residents who buy new homes in the county its only option to generate money to build new schools.
Superintendent of Schools Tim Wryosdick reminded the Santa Rosa County Commission in a four-hour joint meeting Wednesday that the schools were “why people come to Santa Rosa County and why people stay in Santa Rosa County.”
But it became clear as the meeting dragged on that commissioners had a lot of questions about the revenue source and its fairness to new home buyers. Wryosdick and Shool Board Chairwoman Carol Boston also bristled and became testy with residents who questioned their math and whether they spent the half-cent sales tax wisely.
“I see impact fees as our last resort,” Wryosdick said.
Boston, who represents the Navarre area, echoed him: “We have no other choice. There is no other funding choice.”
The School District needs the county to support the impact fee for schools, which would charge $5,000 for every single-family home built. The district also wants $3,000 for multi-family units in the north end and $1,500 for multi-family units in the south end.
The fee would generate at least $7 million a year in revenues. The School District has contended it must build three new schools in the north end and two new schools in the south end during the next 10 years.
However, commissioners and people at the meeting questioned why the district would impose property taxes of 1.4 mills, or $1.40 per $1,000 of taxable property valule, instead of the full 1.5 the state allows.
Others questioned the stewardship of the half-cent sales tax, which has generated nearly $74 million the past 10 years, including $9.3 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year, according to the Florida Department of Revenue.
David Peaden, executive director of the Home Builders Association of West Florida, pointed out the School District used the half-cent that voters overwhelmingly approved in 1997, 2007 and 2017 on tennis courts and football field press boxes.
“This is way too rushed to make a decision today and look into the spending on the sales tax,” Peaden said.
Home builder Edwin Henry said the School District budget was $366 million last year — its most ever. He also passed out to School Board members and commissioners his own research that showed the number of newly completed homes in Santa Rosa County has remained relatively consistent from 1991 to 2018. The 28-year average was 1,271 new homes per year, Henry reported.
“You’re telling me you still don’t have enough money?” Henry asked Wryosdick. “I am not convinced. You have to show me you have done everything you can do to save up and build schools.”
Wryosdick snapped at one point at Henry: “I vehemently disagree with you.”
People also challenged a statement repeated several times by School District officials that even though the last school to be constructed was Bennett Russell Elementary in 2007, they had built the equivalent of four schools. However, data obtained from the district reports 79 classroom additions to schools since 2009 — short of four schools.
Commissioner Don Salter said the impact fee would be unfair to new residents moving to the county or people who grew up in the county and wanted to buy their first home.
“I have a problem with my children paying an impact fee,” he said.
Commissioner Lane Lynchard pointed out that the Seminole County School Board held 17 public meetings and workshops before making its recommendation to its county commissioners.
The Santa Rosa County School Board voted to bring the proposal to the county commission at its April 25 meeting.
“There is a lot of information coming in fast,” Lynchard said.