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Decision closer on impact fee refund

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of November 24, 2011)

The long-running controversy over whether impact fees collected from island residents in the 1990s should be refunded or used to pay for improving traffic flow at the intersection of A1A and 17th Street is inching closer to a conclusion.

County Attorney Alan Polackwich  has begun drafting a new impact fee refund protocol for County Commission consideration that he said in the future would “require the county to keep track and notify people if they had refunds coming.”

Putting a refund protocol in place does not solve the problem of whether $1.2 million in the so-called Fund 101 should or will be refunded to island residents, but commissioners wanted the county attorney to revise the refund mechanism before making a decision.

On one side of the question stands former Vero Beach City Council member Charlie Wilson, who says the money must be returned to current owners of the property.

On the other side stand county staff, including County Administrator Joe Baird and Budget Direct Jason Brown, who point to a clause in the relevant ordinance that requires anyone due a refund apply for it within one year of the expiration of the six-year expenditure period.

Complicating the question is the need for improvements at the 17th  Street intersection.  “The intersection is broken,” says Polackwich. “If the 101 money is refunded, I don’t know that there is enough money in the other traffic impact fee funds to pay for the improvements.”

“There is no other money to fix the intersection,” says county Public Works Director Chris Mora. “We told the city that if the Fund 101 money is handed back, we can’t do it.”

The intersection is in the city of Vero Beach and City Manager Jim O’Connor agrees the intersection needs to be approved.

In a recent letter to Baird, he requested that “the county proceed with the intersection improvements,” adding a request that “priority be giving to the southbound movement with extension of the right turn lane.”

However, in the same letter, O’Connor requested “that a 90-day period be given to any City resident to request a refund of their impact fees, and, if they are legally entitled to a refund, that refund be granted.”

“It is kind of like they are saying they want to have their cake and eat it too,”Polackwich says.

The county is in a similarly ambiguous position. Staff say the money in the 101 fund is not due to be refunded and should be spent on the intersection, and both staff and commissioners believe the intersection needs improvement, but some commissioners, including Bob Solari, want to return to property owners what may be the only money available to pay for the improvements.