Big Development Wins ... Again
Sunday, Mar 25, 2018
On Tuesday, Manatee County residents were twice reminded who really runs this community: developers.
Tuesday's Manatee County Commission meeting included plenty of plot twists but the story ended the same way it always seem[s] to. First, we were told that Commissioner Stephen Jonsson would not be voting on whether or not to give developers a 10 percent subsidy on impact fees that are supposed to be paid in order to cover the cost of new growth. It turns out Jonsson’s son, an attorney, had just gone to work as in-house counsel for politically-connected developer Carlos Beruff.
That’s the same Carlos Beruff who, after enjoying a long and fruitful relationship with Jonsson, a banker, went on to bankroll his 2016 county commission campaign, in which he defeated smart growth advocate and recently dismissed member of the Manatee Planning Commission (yes, those two things are related) Matt Bower.
As unseemly as this may appear, it actually seemed to bode well for the matter at hand. Since the item was a vote on scrapping a long-delayed return to collecting the impact fees at their prescribed rate, that meant that a possible 3-3 deadlock would kill the issue and they’d finally return to 100 percent next month, as scheduled. Since three commissioners—DiSabatino, Trace and Smith—had already balked at making the discount permanent, it seemed as though the public might win for once. More on that in a moment.
During public comment on impact fees, the board had to break for a time-certain item: the matter of whether or not to purchase 33 acres of woodlands from politically-connected developer Pat Neal for the exorbitant price of $3 million—nearly twice what he paid for it in December of 2016. A scheme to set up a Municipal Service Taxing Unit and force surrounding neighbors to pay back that $3 million over 30 years went askew when roughly half of them threw a fit, some of whom even filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent it.
Not to worry, Neal was getting his money one way or another. Commissioner Betsy Benac quickly suggested the county just buy the property and figure out some way to pay for it from somewhere else over the summer budget process. Suddenly, the board’s most pro-development commissioner, who had also had her seat sponsored by Mr. Beruff, just couldn’t live with the idea of missing out on the chance to preserve 33 acres of green space, no matter how much we had to pay Mr. Neal.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker, who developers like so much they made sure he stuck around (at significant taxpayer expense) even after he completed the state’s five-year Deferred Retirement Option Program, indicated that this was a feasible plan, despite his long-time penchant for telling commissioners that the funding for so many more important things like ambulances or competitive EMS and law enforcement pay just can’t be found during these economic times.
That led to a mild uproar from Commissioner Charles Smith who demanded to know why the Palmetto community has been told for 50 years that putting a county-operated public swimming pool north of the river was just too cost prohibitive if a couple of million bucks were so easy to find. Surely the merit of teaching underprivileged black children how to swim in a state where the skill comes in more handy than most had to rank up there with sparing a mere 33 acres (much of which would have remained woods had it been developed), especially in a county that's usually so eager to clear land for new construction. Smith said that "anyone who knows anything about building pools has told me you can’t build one like that for $3 million" and was worried that if costs grew, the people in his district would be given yet another excuse as to why there was still no pool.
Unable to come to a conclusion by lunch, the commissioners recessed with neither item having been voted on. When they came back, the mood was much more congenial. Support for the east county preserve purchase had suddenly materialized. Smith, having been assured by Hunzeker that the pool was a done deal, already budgeted for, and would be built as scheduled, grew more comfortable and joined Benac, Commissioner Baugh (another developer-supported commissioner whose district includes the site in question) and Commissioner Priscilla Trace, to flip the vote to 4-2.
So, in the end, the 33 acres will be spared, and we’ll all pay Neal his $3 million. You can read about that in more depth here.
That led us to the impact fee vote. Once again, those in attendance had to go through the excruciating dog and pony show of developers pleading with the board to relinquish them from this unfair burden and save the mythical middle-class homeowners who would be forced from this community in droves if the oppressive fees were allowed to increase.
Then we sat and listened as advocates like Bower, planning commissioner Al Horrigan, impact fee activist Ed Goff, and Federation of Manatee County Community Associations President Sandy Marshall shoot their arguments full of enough holes to bury nearly every single one of the $4.5 million that were stuffed into the pockets of local developers in FY 2016-17 alone by way of not paying the fees. Fees that were prescribed, by the way, in an expensive taxpayer-funded study the county commissioned from reputable consulting firm Tischler Bise.
Prices are market driven. Houses sell for what the market will bear. They don’t reduce a $350,000 house to $349,000 if you eliminate the fee. Your expressed fear of a lawsuit from developers is unfounded, as Tischler Bise has never ever had their prescribed impact fees successfully challenged in court. If everyone is so concerned about the middle class, why are new home sale prices growing faster in Manatee County than almost anywhere in the country?
Then we had to listen to the commissioners explain that these people don’t really understand impact fees, what they can be used for, how if they are sued it could ultimately cost more than the extra 10 percent to defend, how they are for jobs and middle-class home buyers. If you have an old house and didn’t pay impact fees,how can you say that someone building a new one should? Blotty blue, blotty blah.
Commissioner Benac gave perhaps the most artistic performance. She reminded those in attendance that the county only collected about two thirds of the maximum millage on property taxes and suggested that maybe if we wanted the developers to pay 100 percent, so should we. Benac admitted that sure, we could probably find things to do with the money from the fees, but government can always find a way to tax someone and spend the money. Perhaps Benac missed Mr. Goff’s informative treatise on the difference between a "tax" and a "fee" during public comments.
Benac then posited that the reason there seemed to be a perception that the public was overwhelmingly in favor of collecting full impact fees was owed to the fact that they're only a burden on people who've not yet arrived. Who will be the voice of those taxpayers who've yet to make the decision to come to Manatee County in the first place, the commissioner wanted to know. It seemed she was intent to be the champion of all (future) Manatee County residents. The commissioner, whose voice often drips with condescension when forced to answer those who would question the board publicly, then gave yet another soliloquy on the public's failure to grasp the nuts and bolts of the process and how frustrating it can be to hear their misinformed complaints and how they contradict what impact fees can be used for.
It's true that many citizens are unaware of every spending limitation attached to the funds. However, that doesn't mean that the ones who understand them more fully don't have very valid arguments. To wit, some additional irony came by way of an earlier proclamation that National Library Week would be scheduled from April 8-14. The board took great effort to fawn over their support of libraries in general and our county’s hard working and talented library staff in particular. Yet, when was the last time we used the impact fees we apparently don’t need to build a library that we demonstrably do? Despite massive population growth in Lakewood Ranch and eastward, there is still not a library east of I-75 and south of the river. For LWR residents, the only option is the small Braden River branch, quite a ways down the traffic-riddled SR70 corridor, which is closed two days a week and only stays open until 8 p.m. on two others.
During the recession, the county cut library staff and operation hours, and despite increased usage and budgetary growth have not found the money to put them back, let alone build new facilities to keep up with population growth. Impact fees can only be used for capital expenses, not operational costs such as staff, as commissioners are quick to point out, but I’ve never heard anyone say, hey let’s restore all of the libraries to their regular hours and put adequate programming staff in place and then find the money during the summer budget process. My guess is that unless Pat Neal and Carlos Beruff get into the business of building libraries, we won’t.
When it came time to vote, everyone knew that three votes were in the bag. Commissioners Benac, Baugh and Whitmore would vote for capping the fees at the reduced rate. Commissioner Robin DiSabatino held firm once again, as did Commissioner Trace, which put the decision on whether we collect the fees at 100 percent or give up around $10 million over the next three years on Commissioner Smith.
Smith, who is up for reelection in November, had showed signs of wavering during the public hearing, arguing that all the fees in Lakewood Ranch and Ellenton couldn’t pay for projects in his district anyway. Without much explanation, Smith once again grew more comfortable, pitching in the fourth vote to give developers another win. His mood would improve further after the next item when it was decided to move the Washington Park environmental preserve in his district to a list of projects funded by the half-cent sales tax voters approved in 2016.
DiSabatino was livid. "It was the people of this county who lost today,” she told me afterward. "It’s disgusting. You have a developer (Neal) gouging the county on the price for land, pitting neighbor against neighbor over who’s gotta pay for it. That must be the new business model. Why build the development when you can just get the county to pay you twice what it cost for the land? And the commissioners just stand there and vote for it. It makes me sick. Then they vote for capping the fees, when everyone knows the reasons are all phony. It’s a rigged game. You try and do what’s right and represent what’s best for the people of the county, but you just can’t win. This is a dark day in Manatee County."
It is indeed, and DiSabatino’s had her fill. She’s already announced that she won’t be seeking another term. You can’t blame her for having grown tired of fighting the good fight, maybe getting another commissioner or two to join her on a good cause once in a while, but never seeming to be able to flip the board in favor of the people when it counts. She knows that until more people also run for the right reasons and survive the developer-sponsored attacks to actually get into office, nothing will change, and she’ll be left to continue to bang her head against the wall.
Of course voters have the power to change all that by paying closer attention and then holding public officials accountable for their allegiances. But as many as 130,000 people will vote in a countywide commission race, and you’d be hard pressed to find 10 percent of that number who have any real grasp of issues like this one or even have any idea of the sort of power developers wield in our local government and how it affects them personally. Instead, most just look at whether there’s a D or an R next to the name and vote accordingly.
Developers know this, of course, which is why they funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars into the races to ensure there’s always at least four friendly votes who can send much more dough their way once they’ve gotten a seat at the dais. In 1949, George Orwell wrote in his seminal novel 1984 that all the power was with the proletarians, if they could only ever figure out how to use it. Seven decades later, it’s clear we haven’t.