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City, county at odds over old impact fees

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of October 27, 2011)

In what has created a bit more tension between Indian River County and the City of Vero Beach, the Vero Beach City Council passed the impact fee ball back to the Board of County Commissioners to decide whether South Beach residents who paid fees between 1990 and 1998 deserve a refund.

The fees were assessed to pay for infrastructure improvements to the intersection of Highway A1A and 17th Street, or East Causeway Boulevard as it is called on the barrier island.

Subsequently, the county changed the way it collected and spent the impact fees, leaving an account with some money in it that had to be spent in the now-defunct District 2. With interest, the account totals about $1.2 million.

Now, the county wants to make the intersection project a top priority, despite its low ranking as a priority by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, and spend the money instead of giving it back in in refunds.

The refunds would average about $3,000 per residence and would go to the current homeowner, not necessarily the person who built the home and paid the fee.

"We think there are up to 400 families who are eligible," said Charlie Wilson, who, through his company Asset Research and Recovery has signed up about 150 South Beach residents to apply for refunds.

The county has come to Vero a total of three times for consent to release the money for the intersection project.

Last week, the Vero Beach City Council instructed City Manager Jim O'Connor to notify the county commissioners that the city wishes to have a 90-day window opened up for residents due refunds to apply, after which the balance of the money in Fund 101 could be used to pay for the intersection project.

County Administrator Joe Baird warned the City Council that it’s getting "dragged into this impact fee fight." He warned the city that Vero might have to pay for the road work if all the money is given away in refunds.

Wilson made a presentation designed to debunk some of Baird's statements.

After the meeting, Wilson said, "After a year of fighting county staff who deny, deflect and delay, the City Council has forcefully requested the county reopen the fund period to give city residents a fair chance.

"If the county commission agrees to side with taxpayers for a change instead of blindly following the wishes of entrenched staff, between 100 and 400 residents could get between $1,500 and $9,000 back that rightfully belongs to them," Wilson said.

Councilwomen Tracy Carroll and Pilar Turner were adamant that the county should refund the money, and by the end of the discussion, they persuaded their colleagues to also consent to the 90-day window.

"Give them the 90 days and then go ahead with the project," said Councilman Craig Fletcher.

Carroll questioned why the intersection has only been placed on the front burner since the residents began seeking refunds. "If this project has been on the list since 1996 and that the need is great, why would this not take precedence over other projects?" she asked.

Baird said every time the project comes up, it gets shelved because the neighboring residents and businesses have not been able to agree on a plan. He said it would take about a year and a half to get designs, right of way and approvals together to complete the intersection improvements.

"There's always been opposition, when you get into the beachside, it gets touchy," Baird said.

County commissioners are set to meet Tuesday after a week off from regular meetings. As of press time, the agenda was not published, so it's unclear whether the county will take this matter up next week or at a later date.