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County admits more impact fee refunds due

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of May 10, 2012)

The county’s slow-motion capitulation to Charlie Wilson over the issue of impact fee refunds continued last Friday when staff released a list of 282 more property owners due money from the county, this time from the law enforcement impact fee account.

The refunds in this round are small – most between $150 and $250 – but they bring the total refund amount the county now says is due from four different funds to more than $2.6 million – a far cry from last summer when staff said no refunds were due.

Community Development Director Bob Keating says the county may be on the hook for more impact fee refunds in upcoming quarters, but doesn’t think the amounts will be large.

“What we are refunding now was collected at the height of boom at the end of 2005,” Keating says. “We were taking in truckloads of fees, some of which we haven’t spent because we didn’t have the money to staff new infrastructure. Collection went off a cliff when the boom collapsed, so I don’t think there will be that much more money going forward.”

Wilson, owner of Impact Fee Consultants, believes substantial additional refunds are due.

“It is like Chinese water torture with the county,” he says. “First we have to find the money they are hiding, then we have to fight with staff to get the refunds.”

Wilson believes the county has engaged in a spending spree since he raised the issue of refunds last summer, pushing projects through to empty impact fee accounts before money has to be returned.

According to a chart he provided to this newspaper, the county spent less than $300,000 annually from impact fee accounts in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and then suddenly spent $7.6 million over the past 12 months.

“Staff is doing everything it can to spend the money to keep from giving refunds,” Wilson says.

As an example, Wilson points to the South Recreation Complex which was finally funded in March after years of lying dormant.

“They spent $2.5 million on South County on March 20,” Wilson says. “If they had not passed that then, another 300 people would have been eligible for refunds.”

“We delayed spending money on capital improvements like the South County Multigenerational Center because we would have created additional operating costs that we couldn’t afford in a time of reduced revenues,” Keating says. “It is the same thing with Fire and EMS. Buying the land and building is that is the easy part. The costly part is paying a million bucks a year in personnel costs for a new fire station.”

The county began collecting impact fees from builders in 1986 to pay for new infrastructure necessitated by development. Separate funds were established to pay for roads and bridges, parks, EMS infrastructure and law enforcement infrastructure.

According to state law and county ordinance, the impact fee money had to be spent in the area where it was collected for the designated purpose within six years or be refunded to payers. But the county allowed only a one-year window after the six-year period during which payers could apply for a refund and did not notify property owners they were due money.

The first round in the Wilson/County bout was over $1.1 million in a road fee commonly called Fund 101 that was collected in the 1990s to fund roadwork on the island between Beachland Boulevard and the south county line.

Last summer, staff and commissioners said no refunds were due form Fund 101 because the refund period had passed.

Under pressure from Wilson and his allies, several commissioners shifted their position and decided in December to refund $132,000 in principal that staff said remained in the account, while hanging onto nearly a million in interest accrued on spent and unspent fees.

That compromise was undercut when county staff revealed the amount of unspent impact fees remaining in Fund 101 was actually $255,000, nearly double the amount previously disclosed.

In part because of that error, which seemed to shake the Board’s confidence in a calibrated partial refund process based on staff’s figures, the commission voted to refund all the money in the account.

In April, staff acknowledged another $1.4 million in refunds were due from parks and EMS funds collected in the last quarter of 2005.

On Friday, Keating sent out a memo showing another $68,766 in refunds due from the law enforcement account.