Anti-Sprawl Funds May Become Permanent Budget Item

Fri May 27, 2005 - Southeast Edition

TALLAHASSEE, FL (AP) With some 200 youngsters chattering and eating lunch at the other side of the auditorium, the makeshift music classroom on the stage at West Navarre Elementary can get noisy.

“We’re over the student station capacity and have been for over two years,” said Principal Anna Ratliff, who has turned storage rooms into classrooms to cope. “We’re using every space that is available that meets the code of the state of Florida.”

Crowding in schools including West Navarre — and on roads around the state — will be eased as $1.5 billion in new state money for roads, classrooms and water begins to trickle down to Florida’s local communities, lawmakers say.

That money and $750 million expected to follow every year is part of new legislation aimed at regulating sprawl and paying for services in a state growing by more than 1,000 residents a day. Gov. Jeb Bush has said he will sign the bill into law.

The $8.25 billion over the next decade is less than a quarter of what Senate President Tom Lee has said is needed to maintain current levels of crowding around the state by 2015. But people on all sides say some cash is better than none.

“It’s a good down-payment,” said Charles Pattison, executive director of the anti-sprawl group 1000 Friends of Florida.

Still, he warned that the new construction wouldn’t likely keep up with the pace of sprawl: “You’re probably going to see congestion be the same if not get worse.”

For many, the main concern is whether future lawmakers will follow through on the 2005 Legislature’s promises. In 1985, another landmark law was passed to address some of the same problems — but lawmakers diverted the money intended to pay for those changes a few years later.

“The money is going to be the key,” Pattison said. “We’re very hopeful it could become a permanent part of the budget.”

Supporters of the new law argued it would prevent the state from getting further behind as more residents arrive. It would require local boards either to have money in place for roads and schools or to collect the money from developers building new homes.

But others say enforcement of the rules won’t be tough enough and the fees charged to developers will likely be used on unrelated projects instead of keeping pace with new growth.

Local governments will be required to build roads, schools and water facilities more quickly under the new legislation.

Completely catching up on the current backlog of projects is unrealistic, said Kevin Bakewell, senior vice president of AAA Auto Club South.

“That’s just not going to happen without tax increases like they have in Europe, and I think we have to make the best of what we’ve got,” he said.

Lee lost his battle, fought with Bush’s backing, to make it easier for counties to raise sales and gas taxes by up to $5 billion a year around the state to pay for the effort. The historically conservative House refused the provision.

Instead, counties will have the option of matching about $445 million in state funds for public transportation and road projects next fiscal year. Another $520 million will go to the state’s busiest highways.

About $200 million will clean up polluted waterways and develop alternative water sources such as enclosed reservoirs and desalination plants. More than $175 million will be used to build and renovate schools.

That’s just a sliver of the money it would take to fix current school crowding, said Ruth Melton, director of legislative relations for the Florida School Board Association. She estimates at least $10 billion is needed, and it would take more to lower class sizes to levels demanded by voters in a 2002 constitutional referendum.

Wayne Daltry, smart growth director for Lee County, already knows where he’ll urge local boards to spend the new transportation cash.

In Bonita Springs and Cape Coral, two of many 1950s-era communities where the original developers didn’t think this far ahead, land for new roads is badly needed and quite expensive, he said.

On the small island of Fort Myers Beach, Daltry wants to respond to residents who recently attended a town hall meeting to complain of crowded roads.

The island is too tightly packed to add road lanes, but money for new public buses could ease the congestion and help secure the area’s future, he said.

“If the current residents don’t like the place, then the future residents aren’t going to come,” he said. And, “If retirees don’t come, then the jobs that support them don’t come.”