In a quiet turnabout, more and more local leaders are looking to expand growth management restrictions as part of a desperate effort to pay for school construction. With a stagnant pool of public money for schools, and widespread opposition to new taxes, some local officials are trying to use growth management restrictions to force private-sector contractors to pour more resources into school facilities.
"I think a lot of local governments are beginning to talk about it and look at it as a possibility because school overcrowding is a statewide problem," notes Tom Pelham, the former secretary of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which oversees the growth management process.
The trend toward growth management restrictions based on school overcrowding has builders worried. They say they're being asked to take responsibility for a problem that's not their doing.
"It's a last resort mentality," says Lisa Maxwell, government affairs director for the Builders Association of South Florida. As a result, she fears, "landowners could be held hostage."
If local officials don't do their school plans correctly, says Keith Hetrick of the Florida Home Builders Association, "You're going to get moratoriums all over the state on buildings."
Here's how that could happen, according to development officials and lawyers: The state's 11-year-old growth management law was designed to make sure public facilities like streets are built and paid for by the time they're needed, through a planning process known as "concurrency." In many instances, concurrency allows local governments to extract big fees from developers where new projects burden existing services. The program can trigger moratoriums where infrastructure is inadequate and local government can't pay for improvements.
Originally, concurrency was limited to local roads, sewers and other basic capital needs. The original legislation left it up to local governments to decide whether to include schools in their plans. Given the difficulty of implementing school concurrency, only one county ? Monroe ? even tried. Its regulations were rejected in a court challenge and have been removed from its growth management plan.
But in the early 1990s, officials in several cities and counties began to reconsider the idea of school concurrency as they faced a growing backlog of school needs.
Planners expect about 22% of the state's K-12 construction need to go unmet between now and 2000 ? a total of $1.9 billion. The worst shortfalls are occurring over the next three years in fast-growing South Florida counties. The money raised from concurrency-related fees wouldn't be much compared to a sales tax increase or a local bond issue ? the two big public-financing options available in most counties. But every little bit helps.
In some cases, county and city leaders also are considering school concurrency as a way to rein in local school boards. Too often, observers say, school boards approve new school locations with little regard for city or county comprehensive plans.
So far, most of the action on school concurrency has taken place in Broward and Palm Beach counties. After a proposed sales tax was defeated in Broward in September 1995 ? and legislation to raise the real estate document tax for school construction also met with defeat ? the Broward Commission this spring became the first to take the next step and agree on a school concurrency plan. "Once that referendum failed, the pressure mounted to find some other source of money," says Dennis Mele, a developer lawyer in Fort Lauderdale.
DCA's review of the plan this summer was being watched closely by developers and local governments. Officials of the Florida Home Builders Association and other leaders questioned the validity of the plan, saying the county hadn't identified any way to pay for its existing backlog of school needs ? a necessary prerequisite for school concurrency. They also questioned whether the necessary cooperation between school boards and local governments would be possible.
Even if the county's plan is approved, the real impact of school concurrency is doubtful in areas where a developer has gained prior approval to build. The legality of any moratorium based on school concurrency also is debatable, some observers say. And state officials also have made it clear they intend to give local governments a lot of flexibility in implementation. Despite those potential weaknesses in school concurrency, other counties appear likely to follow suit if Broward wins approval of its plan.
Regardless of the outcome of the debate, growth management's defenders were happy to see more people realizing the value of the long-maligned planning process. Says Patti McKay, executive director of 1000 Friends of Florida: "I'm encouraged to see more and more communities recognize the benefits that can accrue to the community."
Florida's Fading Democrats
Florida has few traditions, and many of the ones it has aren't all that great ? swamp cabbage, killer hurricanes, shell art. Pause for a moment to reflect on the possible passing of one of the oldest: Democratic control of the state House of Representatives.
Of course, there's still the formality of an election to go through. But as mid-summer approached, it suddenly seemed unlikely that Democrats will maintain their 122-year-old grip on the lower chamber. With just a three-vote margin left in the 120-member body after the 1994 elections, Democrats were wracked by a dozen departures in mid-1996. A disproportionate share came from rural and North Florida, where the party has its deepest roots. At least a few of those conservative Democrats were thought to be troubled by the fact that the party's leadership was passing to urban members like Dade County's Willie Logan. Meanwhile, incumbent Republicans were being encouraged to keep their seats in the House. Says John Wehrung, the GOP's chief House strategist: "We've just gone to them and said, `Look where we're at and look where they're at. We're going to take over for the first time in 122 years. Think about it.'" Perhaps even more ominous for Democrats, Republicans were mounting far more challenges to incumbents than were Democrats. "It's still going to be hard," says Wehrung. "But I'd much rather be us than them."
The Democrats' chief strategist, Bryan Blum, insists his party will retain control of the House, despite the retirements. He points out that Democrats appeared to be heading for a good year nationally. "I see that trend driving a lot of elections here," he argues, especially in closely divided districts where Republicans won last time.
How to Surf State Government
A while back, a Florida Trend article got officials worrying about whether the state was becoming a straggler on the info-bahn ["The Digital Deficit," November 1994]. In response, Gov. Chiles turned to his administration's computer guru, Management Services Secretary William Lindner.
Lindner's solution: a slick and highly detailed World Wide Web site called the Florida Communities Network (FCN), which went online last year. It's intended to bring a wealth of government information to desktop computer jockeys, including huge amounts of data that previously wasn't easily accessible. Budgeted at $2 million and costing about $1.5 million, FCN hasn't matched the big investment of states like North Carolina, which has spent millions for high-capacity phone lines to transmit full-motion video and other fancy cyber-stuff to schools and other users.
But FCN is drawing favorable attention anyway. It recently was praised in WebMaster magazine (March/April 1996) and in Government Technology (December 1995). Says WebMaster: "With two half-time graphic designers dedicated to the Florida Communities Network, the state places a high priority on appearance, and it shows."
FCN (http://FCN.state.fl.us) provides click-on connections called "hotlinks" to private business Web sites around the state. It also offers business people fast and detailed database information concerning state contracts, vendors, professional licenses and state employment opportunities. You can also request bid documents and other forms via the e-mail function.
Secretary of State Sandra Mortham's office also has won honors for its detailed political data. During the presidential primary season, the office's site was named "C-Span Web Site of the Week" and "CNN Web Site of the Day." The site also includes detailed data on corporate filings and trade.
Lindner predicts that the state's focus on packaging data will prove to be a better use of resources in the long run than heavy state investment in telecommunications infrastructure ? sometimes referred to as "big pipes." "We took the approach that we're going to build products and let them drive the delivery system," Lindner says.
While the Department of Commerce is disappearing, a vestige will remain within the governor's office. The new Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development (OTTED, pronounced "Oh-Ted") will be headed by Dennis Harmon, who previously was chief of the Bureau of Economic Analysis at DOC. The office will make the final decision on many of the new tax incentives created by 1996 economic development legislation. Harmon says business owners interested in tax incentives should first call local economic development organizations, which can often bundle state incentives with local ones.