The initial draft of Sarasota County’s $90,000 fiscal neutrality study is in, and evidence of the insanity at the helm of the County Commission’s quest to burden taxpayers with surplus infrastucture costs. Laffer’s fundamental assumption – that our built environment functions as a free market – is absurd. Taxpayer investments are always part of the equation, and eliminating avenues to direct those investments is ludicrous.
The Laffer draft recommends eliminating the Urban Service Boundary and eliminating 2050‘s fiscal neutrality standards. Laffer also advises removing all density restrictions that are set at the County level. County power to deny development proposals and zoning begone—as much as state law will allow, the report advises.
The 2050 fiscal neutrality provision protects Sarasota taxpayers by requiring high density development outside the USB (east of Interstate-75) to absorb associated infrastructure costs (police, fire, roads, sewers, etc). If developers don’t want to absorb those costs, they can wait until we need to move the USB to meet housing demand. Right now, it’s not necessary.
It appears Laffer and Associates hasn’t engaged in fundamental research regarding Sarasota County housing supply and demand. Inside the USB, in the unincorporated county, total potential housing unit supply is 34,700 units, 200 percent more than projected 10-year household demand of 15,300. Those numbers don’t include metrics from North Port, Venice and the City of Sarasota (North Port alone has an inventory of 70,000 potential housing units). The oversupply of potential housing inside the USB, where public infrastructure already exists, rules out adding taxpayer funded infrastructure east of I-75. Yet Laffer and Associates would have existing taxpayers fund this surplus infrastructure, poaching dollars and services from County and dual-taxed City neighborhoods. Rather than do the heavy lifting of creating effective infill and redevelopment policy (how many empty lots and commercial centers are in your neighborhood?), our County Commission is looking to commit taxpayers to funding new infrastructure before they have maximized and maintained what we already have.
Property rights have limits, and those limits kick in when developers ask the rest of us to pay for things. When communities facilitate or subsidize surplus building, existing neighborhoods and businesses suffer. Chuck Mahron, author of “Thoughts on Building Strong Towns,” says this pattern of development doesn’t create wealth; it destroys wealth by creating “modest short benefit and massive long term costs.” Those long-term costs include infrastructure maintenance and the salaries, pensions and benefits for new public employees. These costs aren’t covered by impact fees. Sound a bit like a Ponzi scheme? That’s exactly how some nationally recognized urban planners describe it. What is the impact of deteriorating infrastructure on the value of your home or business?
It appears Laffer and Associates are peddling the same deregulation snake oil with land use planning as the banking system did with with mortgage derivatives, and in the end, we will pay for it. Our former County Administrator Randy Reid recommended hiring FSU to conduct the County’s fiscal neutrality study; Reid’s FSU recommendation was cited as a factor in his dismissal at the hand of four commissioners.
The County Commission is poised to conduct major surgery on policies that protect existing taxpayers, neighborhoods and businesses. We need a second opinion.