Monday, September 23, 2019

Growth does not pay for itself

The Villages proves the big Florida lie: Growth does not pay for itself | Editorial

SEP 18, 2019 | 6:00 AM

The houses are crowded together at The Villages retirement community. (STEPHEN M. DOWELL / ORLANDO SENTINEL)

The Villages is the fastest-growing metro area in the nation.

In. The. Nation.

If growth pays for itself, as we’ve so often heard in Central Florida, then local governments like Sumter County — the epicenter of The Villages’ development — must be swimming in cash.

Instead, it’s acting like a government drowning in the costs of growth.

Sumter is so desperate for money that its five Republican county commissioners look ready to vote next week for a whopping 25.6% increase in the current property tax rate. (We’ll leave to your imagination the reaction if a group of elected Democrats proposed such an increase.)

The county concedes in its own budget documents that the main culprit for this tax increase is the breakneck rate of growth tied to The Villages’ success.

From July 2018 through June 2019, The Villages added 2,100 new homes, and several hundred others were built outside the retirement community. The county added 159 new commercial buildings with more than 2.5 million square feet of business space.

Even without a property tax increase, Sumter would rake in millions more than the previous year. It’s still not enough.

The county needs even more money to hire deputies, build fire stations and, particularly, to build roads that The Villages must have to continue its relentless march south. The development designed for retirees already is home to 128,000 people, an increase of nearly 40% in less than 10 years, and it has plans for tens of thousands more rooftops south of State Road 44 and Florida’s Turnpike.

It doesn’t help when governments like Sumter refuse to raise taxes until they reach a tipping point, which Sumter apparently has.

According to Florida TaxWatch, Sumter’s various governments in 2017-18 collectively averaged the fourth-lowest property tax rate in Florida. That’s a real selling point until you tell people they’re going to get slapped with a nearly 26% bump in their tax bill in a single year.

On his Sumter County bio page, County Commission Doug Gilpin wrote that the intended to “continue working with my fellow Commissioners to improve services and keep our tax burden low.”

That they did, until now.

Sumter County government doesn’t help itself by charging transportation impact fees designed to favor The Villages. Impact fees are one-time charges on new construction that are supposed to offset the cost of improving or building roads necessitated by that construction.

In Sumter County, the transportation fee charged for a new home is $2,600. Unless that new home is in a retirement or age-restricted community, in which case the fee for each new home is $901.

The Villages is one big retirement and age-restricted community, so homes built there enjoy the lower impact fee rate. Good for them. Bad for nearly everyone else.

The Villages is a textbook example of the big Florida lie that growth is self-sustaining.

And yet, elected officials continue to be dazzled by developer promises of growth delivering more jobs and more taxes.

Growth does mean jobs. The Villages has created many hundreds of them. But many are low-paying service jobs, which has resulted in an affordable housing shortage in Sumter. (That should sound familiar to the rest of this region.)

And all those new tax dollars? Not nearly enough to pay the bills.

Counties like Osceola, consistently among the nation’s fastest-growing areas, are familiar with that tune. Osceola’s had gangbusters growth for years but was so desperate for road money that it tried to get a 1-cent transportation sales tax approved by voters earlier this year.

It failed, as we suspect a 26% property tax increase would if the voters of Sumter County had the opportunity to cast a vote.

We’re not here to say cities and counties should stop growing. We are here to say that bureaucrats and elected officials need to have eyes wide open when developers pitch projects with idealized names like River Cross or The Grow or Sunbridge.

These projects will create jobs. They will generate taxes. And they come with a bill that one day has to be paid.

Just ask property owners in Sumter County.

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