After listening to two hours of public comments, Sumter County commissioners voted to delay a possible increase in road impact fees until July.
The decision came after some speakers argued that now is the wrong time to raise fees due to the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic on small businesses.
Trucks filled the parking lot outside the Everglades Recreation Center as about 150 construction workers and small business owners filled the meeting room and many more waited outside.
They said raising impact fees would hurt small businesses, slow development and damage the local economy.
Raising impact fees, especially for The Villages developer, was a key issue in last year’s election, when three commissioners were ousted by challengers Craig Estep, Oren Miller and Gary Search.
A 25 percent increase in the property tax rate in 2019 spurred opposition to the incumbent commissioners. The county’s road construction costs drove the tax rate hike.
After listening to opponents, Estep questioned whether the fees should be raised during the pandemic.
“Is this a good time to do that?” he asked. “For the record, the answer is no.”
His motion to table any proposed hike until July was approved on a 3-2 vote with commissioners Garry Breeden and Doug Gilpin voting against it.
Search said the construction trucks left no parking spaces available for residents who favored fee increases.
“Who I’m disappointed in is The Villages,” he said. “The message went out that the sky is falling down.”
He said that raising impact fees can spur development and increase home values.
Gilpin said the fees should not be raised, especially during the pandemic. He said $40 million the county spent on roads will generate a $2 billion return.
“Sumter County’s always been a business-friendly community,” he said. “I don’t think we should do anything with impact fees at all.”
Most of the speakers agreed.
“Raising impact fees will destroy all incentives for business development and job creation,” said Marilyn Iskra.
Brent McBride said a fee hike “would not punish the developers. This increase will be passed on to the consumers.”
Higher fees would cause businesses to locate elsewhere, said Ted Graham.
“We have to be competitive,” he said. “We cannot be competitive with higher impact fees.”
Cassandra Nelson, an employee of Pike’s Electric of Wildwood, said her father is a licensed plumber and higher fees would burden small businesses.
Fee increases would make it difficult for young people to buy homes and start their own small businesses, said Bruce Haberle, who runs the charter school’s Construction Management Academy.
Russell Hogan, of Center Hill, who builds five to 10 new homes each year, said a fee increase would hurt his business.
Daniel Warren, an expert in engineering and finance, suggested commissioners take a more surgical approach and only increase fees in retirement communities, which would primarily affect The Villages developer.
But Search said it isn’t possible to increase fees for only certain development categories.