Impact fees charged on new construction in unincorporated Lee County have been reduced by 80 percent, effective immediately.
The Lee County Board of County Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to reduce the fees on new residential and commercial construction for two years.
The reduction of those impact fees began Tuesday and ends on March 13, 2015.
County Commissioner Frank Mann, who dissented, said the decision to slash the fees charged on new homes and other buildings to offset their "impact" on such things as roads, schools and parks wasn't a moratorium, but it might as well have been.
Construction industry advocates, though, hailed the decision as further proof the Southwest Florida economy is on the upswing.
"We're so glad the county commission had the political will to do what we feel will create jobs in Lee County, and help diversify the tax base," Lee County Building Industry Association President Heather Mazurkewicz said.
Numerous officials from Cape Coral, including Mayor John Sullivan and Councilmember Marty McClain, approached the dais to provide input.
The board had originally considered suspending impact fees when the resolution first came forward in January.
At the public hearing on Feb. 12, the item was deferred to the March 4 Management and Planning meeting to consider options other than a suspension, where a consensus was found to pursue a rate reduction.
Fire and EMS fee are excluded from the reduction.
During a nearly 90-minute public comment, many Lee County residents expressed opposition to the reduction.
"The county will lose millions and we'll see our infrastructure crumble and property taxes increase," said Scotty Wood of Estero. "The economy is improving. Don't give away something to stimulate something that's already growing."
Other opponents said there is no correlation between reducing or suspending impact fees and improved economic health and that the builders were part of a special interest group looking for another handout.
In defending builders, Anthony Greico, president of the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association, said property values haven't risen enough to say a comeback is in full swing.
"Property levels are where they were two decades ago. This is for only two years and we'll move on," Greico said.
Former Cape Coral Mayor Joe Mazurkewicz, who proclaimed himself the "father of impact fees," said impact fees aren't going to solve all problems.
"In the best of times, it's the best of revenues. We hope the reduction will increase the momentum we've begun to build," Mazurkewicz said. "Forgive fees one time to collect more ad valorem. That's the answer to your $28 million question."
Sullivan said both sides were focusing on the wrong things. He said there were two issues, residential and commercial, that needed to be addressed separately.
"Homes and commercial development are two different animals. People didn't come here because of the impact fees. To suspend the fees is a mistake," Sullivan said. "You're trying to shoot rabbits with a Howitzer."
During his comment, Mann chastised those who came down hard on the building industry while also urging his fellow commissioners to keep impact fee structure status quo.
"I wish we hadn't gone to tell the building industry they're the evil empire, but someone has to pay for roads and schools. It's all part of growth," Mann said. "We've had a recession here and nothing you can do with impact fees will help those 25,000 homes that were foreclosed on."
"We're talking about defending the quality of life in Lee County and it's affected when we can't keep our roads up and when our schools and parks deteriorate," Mann said. "For the wrong reasons, the commission has voted to, in essence, suspend impact fees. That will cost us $8 million at a time we need that."
As part of the approval, county staff is required to update the commissioners on economic indicators, such as employment, taxable sales and permit activity on development after the first year of the reduction period.
The county board can then revisit.