When capitalistic interests and public interests collide
Portable classrooms are shown at College Park Elementary School in Ocala on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
As the Marion County School Board readies its latest proposal for how to fix a problem it did not create, namely not having enough room for students drawn here by rampant development over the last decade, it helps to understand how we got to this point.
Last year, as school capacity issues became acute, representatives from Marion County, Ocala and the school district began revising a 2008 interlocal agreement that, among other things, set standards for approving development as it relates to its impact on school enrollment. This concept is known as school concurrency.
There was scant, if any, enforcement of that 2008 agreement. Additionally, in 2011, the school district suspended impact fees —under which developers would pay fees to help offset the impacts their projects would have on school capacity. That was during the height of the recession, and the thought then was that doing so would help jumpstart homebuilding, a key cog in the local economy.
That strategy, and a revitalized worldwide economy, helped bring about extraordinary growth in recent years that, in turn, has brought about new residents, new businesses and a larger tax base. The growth also has created an unrelenting strain on critical infrastructure, not just schools but also roads, public safety, garbage, and water and sewer services.
But as the economy improved and growth flourished, impact fees remained suspended year after year until some schools were bursting at the seams and the need to build new schools could not be ignored any longer.
At the end of the 2022-2023 school year, Marion County Public Schools’ enrollment was at an all-time high of 43,199 students. The district projects that the student population will grow by nearly 12,000 students by the year 2038.
School district leaders have struggled in recent years with enrollments that are outpacing available resources. Last year, when more students than expected showed up for school, particularly in the southwest corridor of the county, district leaders hit the wall. With no immediate funding sources available to build more schools and while having to meet statutory restrictions about how many students can be in a classroom, the district, county and Ocala began to draft a new interlocal agreement.
We expressed concerns at the time that the new agreement did not address the capacity issues in a meaningful way and seemed more like an effort to dispose of the school concurrency clause altogether. After all, if we applied the 2008 agreement to the current situation, the Marion County commission arguably would have to consider imposing a building moratorium in southwest Marion County.
Ocala and county officials were adamant that they did not want to re-establish school concurrency service standards, which would have negatively impacted developers and other wealthy campaign contributors. Further, they maintained that the school district needed to find the money to fix the problem created by the city and county’s unrelenting approval of developments.
To their own detriment, school district officials acquiesced, for now, on the issue of reimplementing school concurrency and reasoned that they instead would just focus on expanding funding. When the new agreement was signed, the county and city promised “cooperation” with the school district to later address funding issues to meet capacity.
The school district then hired a consultant to both analyze and project enrollment growth in the coming years and to determine approximately how much money the district would need to meet capacity. After a nine-month study, the consultant said that figure is about $1.1 billion over a 15-year period.
And that number, sobering as it is, is likely too small. While the study was being conducted, housing permits soared. The consultant relied on lower numbers, which arguably would favor the developers.
The school board held numerous workshops and public meetings to discuss possible options and even considered selling property to raise funds for building. They shared the study findings with county and city officials, developers and members of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership (CEP), all of which–predictably—balked at the figures.
The consultant recommended an impact fee of $10,693 per each single-family home. Kevin Sheilley, CEO for the CEP, said at a public meeting that he felt the impact fee should be $1,069, which would be less than half of what the impact fee was when it was suspended in 2011.
The Marion County Building Industry Association and attorneys for developers said the school impact fee would hurt their ability to meet affordable housing needs. This strawman’s argument is laughable since there has been very little affordable housing built around here over the past decade while the school impact fees were nonexistent.
No one, of course, can force developers to build affordable housing because we operate in a free market powered by private business owners motivated by profit. But when taxpayers are made to subsidize that profit by paying more than their fair share of the costs, it’s no longer capitalism. It’s corporate welfare.
To their credit, school leaders continued to seek a way to make things work offering variations to structure the fees.
School officials then proposed that the Marion County Commission, which must approve reinstating the impact fees, set the fees at 40%, or less than half of what their consultant recommended. That suggestion went nowhere, leading us to speculate what sort of pressure was being exerted behind the scenes on the elected officials across the board.
County Commissioner Carl Zalak, who has been in office while Marion County’s infrastructure needs have continued to snowball, threatened the school district during a public meeting. Zalak said he would block a vote to approve school impact fees unless the school district asked voters to approve a half-cent sales tax, which the district can do without the commission’s approval.
Why? Zalak didn’t want it to interfere with the county’s penny sales tax. He said the school board should hold off on putting its sales tax question on the ballot until after the county puts its own sales tax renewal for transportation and public safety needs before the voters in 2024 and 2026.
County officials next said they wouldn’t approve setting school impact fees at 40% of the recommended rate until Ocala leaders were on board, in the spirit of the interlocal agreement. When the “Gazette” asked city officials about their concerns, they did not respond for weeks.
Eventually, the “Gazette” obtained a letter from the city to the county that references a communication Ocala had earlier with the school board that stated, in a somewhat condescending tone to a body of similarly elected officials, that the school board should go back to the workgroup that crafted the ineffective interlocal agreement and find some other solutions.
Here’s where things get even murkier.
The city council has delegated negotiations with the school district and county to Councilmember Kristen Dreyer. Of note, Dreyer is a Realtor who also is in a romantic relationship with a developer and engineer, David Tillman, who also serves as the president of the Marion County Building Industry. While we don’t question Dreyer’s good faith attempt to find a solution, we can’t help but wonder if her involvements in any way compromise her objectivity.
Even new City Council Chair Barry Mansfield’s business, Cullison-Wright Construction Co., is involved in building a multifamily housing complex just blocks from city hall. That is relevant because one of the concerns the city is raising involves lowering impact fees for multifamily units.
Marion County today has a mountain of major infrastructure needs largely because of an industry that has been making huge profits for years by attracting more people and growth to our area. Back when school impact fees were suspended, it made some sense because the local economy was cratering. That’s not the case anymore.
If we rely on County Administrator Mounir Bouynes’ estimates, Marion County has $1.3 billion in infrastructure needs to figure out how to fund in addition to what the school district needs. It’s well past time for developers to pay their fair share to offset their impacts, and for Ocala and county officeholders to make it happen.
What happens when capitalistic interests are contrary to those of the taxpayers, when the voices of the powerful, those who largely fund local elections, are loudest in the ears of our elected officials? Who is left to stand up for the public when they themselves seem to have little interest in doing so? Through the apathy of local voters, our community will continue to be steamrolled.
Voters must demand accountability from public officials for poor planning and not let them blame others. Voters should demand that developers pay their fair share after enjoying a free ride for more than a decade.
At the very least, the school board should put the half-cent sales tax question on the 2024 ballot so that voters can have a say now in how our school needs might be addressed and not wait years until the county has used up whatever altruistic goodwill local voters have to raise taxes on themselves.