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Polk Schools, county board weigh funding options

Posted on Wednesday, September 4, 2019 at 12:46 pm

By CHARLES A. BAKER III | Staff Writer

 

POLK COUNTY – There will be two county commission public hearings in September to debate whether to raise impact fees that benefit Polk County Public Schools in January 2020. 

The school board is also considering a voter referendum to raise property taxes that benefit education in 2021. The first county commission public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3, sometime after 1:30 p.m.

Public hearings associated with raising property taxes have not been scheduled. This concept is still under debate at the school board level.

During multiple school board meetings over the past year, an apparent majority of board members have been discussing what they describe as a lack of funding from state legislators.

“We are totally underfunded,” Polk County School Board member Lori Cunningham said last week.

Area leaders say these local tax and fee increases are necessary due to a state policy change from around a decade ago. In 2008, during the recession, state legislators had less money to fund programs and they collectively voted to stop funding something called Public Education Capital Outlay — or PECO funding. 

This was money dedicated to building new schools and other large capital education projects. According to Clancy Mullen of Duncan Associates, a consultant paid to advise the Polk County School Board and the Board of County Commissioners, this policy change translated into a funding loss of $4,302 per student annually in Polk County since 2015. There are around 100,000 students in Polk County Public Schools.

The loss of PECO funding is one of the reasons why the school board asked local voters to re-approve a half cent sales tax last year. 

School staff say impact fees are generally used to expand an existing school. An impact fee is a fee paid by a developer that is passed on to a consumer. For example, when a new housing subdivision is built in an area where nearby schools, utilities or roads are at capacity, an impact fee is paid to help offset the cost of expanding the associated school, utility or road.

During the recession, some impact fees were frozen, but now that local property values have returned to pre-2008 levels, the county commissioners are considering raising county impact fees to help replace lost state education funding for new school construction. 

Local leaders say this is not a problem in every Floridian county, just counties with explosive growth like Polk County.

“There essentially is no longer any state funding for capacity improvements (in Polk County),” Mullen said.

Currently, Polk County impact fees benefiting education are the 13th highest in the state, Mullen said. Osceola County, which is growing roughly at the same pace as Polk County, has the highest impact fees in the state, approximately double of what is being collected in Polk County.

Polk County Commission Chair George Lindsey said over the past two months there have been multiple discussions about impact fees. At one point they considered doubling impact fees to get comparable to what is being collected in Osceola, but that was determined to be too high of a jump in such a short amount of time. 

Lindsey said the board is considering raising impact fees that benefit education by 75 percent over the next three years. Each raise would require a public hearing. The hearing on Sept. 3 for example will just be in reference to the first of three proposed raises.

In reference to the possibility of higher property taxes to benefit public education, school board members recently decided that it would not be appropriate to ask local voters for more money so soon after the half cent sales tax renewal last year. 

Part of that half cent sales tax on the ballot read a promise not to raise taxes again within three years. By voice consent, the school board decided that if they went to the voters in November 2021, and enacted new taxes the following year, that would prevent them from not following through with their promise.

“I think the county commission understands the challenges we are facing,” Polk County Manager Bill Beasley told the Polk County School Board at a recent meeting. “I think they are making a commitment to increased school impact fees but they are not going to get to 100% right away.”

Contact Charles A. Baker III at cbaker@d-r.media.