Reporter

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Osceola County has experienced boom town-level growth in the last decade.

From 2010 to 2017, the county’s population jumped 25.25 percent, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Kissimmee even cracked a U-Haul top 10 list of the most migrated-to cities nationwide last year.

But more people means more clogged roadways and gridlock traffic. The backlog of road projects prompted Osceola County commissioners to propose a 1 percent sales tax increase residents will vote on during a special election May 21.

But some Osceola County residents say developers, not residents, should bare the brunt of infrastructure upgrade costs.

But the solution to Osceola’s traffic woes may not be so simple.

Skyrocketing construction costs make it difficult to meet demand, according to government officials, who say it costs about $10 million to build one lane mile of roadway.

But proposal is unpopular with some Osceola County residents who think the money should come elsewhere, like from mobility fees.

Impact and mobility fees are costs builders must pay cities or counties when they bring new construction to an area. The money goes to improving and expanding roads, schools, parks and other affected assets.

Residents like Adrienne White think builders need to pay more of those fees.

“Naturally the developers should be the ones paying,” said White, who moved to Osceola County 10 years ago from California. “I think raising the taxes in the county to punish all of the citizens for something that should have been happening all along is unfair.”

White, who opposes the sales tax, said local government needs to be stricter with massive developers and not award credits or breaks. 

“It’s extremely unfair and one-sided,” she said.

But making developers pay for better roads may not be a simple fix.

Osceola County already has the highest mobility fees in Central Florida and the highest combined impact fees in the state, county officials said.

It wasn’t always this way. Mobility fees are relatively new to Central Florida and Osceola County didn’t implement its until 2015. 

In March of that year, developers had to pay $4,585 for each single-family home built, while multi-family apartment complexes were charged $3,203 per unit to mitigate roadway impacts, according to county data.

But three years later in March 2018, mobility fees nearly doubled across all categories. Each single-family home now has $8,700 in mobility fees and multi-family apartment complexes pay $6,081 per unit. 

For comparison, Orange County mobility fees are $3,898 per single family home and Polk County is $2,155.

School impact fees also sharply increased in Osceola last year, and the Board of County Commissioners is now considering raising park impact fees by up to 150 percent. That measure will be discussed further at a board workshop meeting Monday.

Mobility fees help local governments fund roads, but higher costs for developers simply mean higher costs for consumers, said Raleigh Steinhauer, government and legal affairs director at the Greater Orlando Home Builders’ Association.

“It’s a misconception that the developer is the one actually paying these costs,” Steinhauer said. “They just get racked into the price of a new home, so that you have more expensive homes, more expensive apartments.”

It’s easier for developers to make up those costs with single-family homes, Steinhauer said, but much more difficult to do it with multi-family apartment complexes.

“Really high impact fees absolutely kill true affordable housing,” he said. “If a developer wants to build cheaper apartments, they’ll go somewhere else. That’s not really a good thing for a quickly growing county with an affordable housing crisis.”

Steinhauer said the county faces a difficult task. It needs money for roads, but Florida is one of only seven states in the country without a state income tax. That means local governments must often generate revenue for transportation by raising sales taxes, property taxes or mobility fees.

“But impact fees are never going to get you completely where you need to be, especially if you went years and years without any mobility fees at all,” Steinhauer said. “Especially if you need to build the amount of roads Osceola is looking to build.”

Mobility fees are expected to generate just over $11.26 million for Osceola this year, county officials said.

But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the laundry list of proposed county roadwork projects.

County officials said it will cost about $1.1 billion just to widen all currently approved two-lane roads to four lanes, with the proposed tax expected to generate $60 million a year. The tax increase would capture more than $2 billion over its 30-year lifespan, according to county officials, since annual revenues will increase as more people move to Osceola County.

Residents will decide where they stand on the proposed tax increase during a special election May 21.

If the 1 percent increase passes, Olore said there are no other surtaxes the county can levy for transportation.

“State law doesn’t permit anymore,” she said.

But if it doesn’t pass, Olore said residents shouldn’t expect faster roadway improvements.

“If the voters say no, we just keep going with the money we have today,” Olore said. “(That means) we can do one road widening every seven to ten years.”

Olore said commissioners could also decide if they want to pursue a different funding solution, like increasing millage or re-introducing the sales tax proposal on the 2020 ballot.