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Charlie Wilson’s war: Proving that you can ‘fight County Hall’ on impact fees

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of December 29, 2011)
Photo of Charlie Wilson

When the County Commission voted to refund approximately $400,000 in impact fees and accrued interest to island homeowners last week, it may have created more problems than it solved for the county, but it was a clear-cut victory for political activist Charlie Wilson.

The former Vero Beach City Council member founded Asset Research and Recovery in 2010 to help individuals reclaim money from the government.

His focus on forcing the refund of $1.2 million in traffic impact fees in Fund 101, which were collected by the county on the island prior to 1999 but never spent, stirred up on the one of the biggest political controversies of 2011.

Criticized by many as an ill-informed gadfly and troublemaker, Wilson achieved a sweet personal victory when he stepped to the podium Dec. 20 and finally convinced the commission to return a third of the money county staff fought long and hard to hang onto.

“It is a vindication,” Wilson said immediately after the emotional meeting. “They have been able to deny, delay and deflect for over a year, but we finally proved refunds are due.”

In the aftermath of his big win at the commission, we asked Wilson to sum up ongoing impact fee problems and fill us in on his other activities.

32963: How much jeopardy does Indian River County face in regard to all types of impact fees?

WILSON: The impact fee issue may represent the largest unfunded potential liability in county history. It is unlikely that Indian River will lose all the issues it faces but it very likely will lose on some points. Historically, Indian River County’s attitude has been, “We’ll do it until someone sues us.” Management has had a “we’re big and you’re little attitude,” and so far it has worked. They have counted on the fact that a single impact fee payer’s claim is too small to take on the county. The county has over $200 million a year in income, a $50 million reserve and an unlimited fund for attorneys. How can the average citizen due a $3,000 refund afford to take them to Circuit Court? But now companies such as ours and public awareness are turning the tables.

32963: How much money does the county stand to lose?

WILSON: The total amount in question is about $50 million but my educated guess of their likely losses is $10 to $15 million.

32963: What is the biggest mistake the county is making dealing with impact fee refunds?

WILSON: Cheating. If they would play it straight and manage impact fees based on the strict reading of the law and past judicial direction, there would be no problem. Every problem they have is a result of stretching the rules in their favor.

32963: Does the county commission decision to return some of the money in Fund 101 settle that particular issue or raise more issues?

WILSON: If the issue had been decided as suggested by Commissioners Davis and Solari it would have been settled. These two commissioners advocated valiantly for island residents, as did the Vero Beach City Council. Unfortunately Commissioners Wheeler and O’Bryan were able to convince Commissioner Flescher government needs money more than families do.

32963: What is the status of the claims of the 290 people you say deserve Fund 101 refunds who will not receive them under the county commission compromise?

WILSON: I can’t speak for them but I am willing to continue the fight for what is rightfully theirs. I am happy for the 100-plus families who will be reimbursed but I for one am not willing to abandon the 290 homeowners the county has disenfranchised.

32963: Have any of the 290 filed suit against the county? Are lawsuits expected?

WILSON: As I said it is nearly impossible for an individual to “fight county hall” in this case. We are currently in the market for a law firm that can help us.

32963: What is the main problem with the county spending recreational impact fees to upgrade South County Park?

WILSON: An impact fee is not a tax. It is a fee. The county is only able to impose taxes allowed by the Florida Constitution – property taxes, optional sales taxes and gas taxes being the largest. Florida courts have imposed three conditions for impact fee use: There has to be a need, the fees have to increase capacity, and expenditure has to directly benefit fee payers. Courts also require fees to be spent within six years or returned. There were good reasons for these rules. They are meant to prevent hoarding and stop counties from blowing the money on extravagant things.

South County Recreation Center improvements spend over a $1 million to convert softball fields into lacrosse fields. This is a replacement, not an increase in capacity. The “multigenerational gym” does not meet a true need. A want is not a need. Spending money on the center is simply a way for the county to burn off money to avoid refunds.

32963: What do you think will happen when FVP v. Indian River County goes to court?

WILSON: I think FVP has some strong issues and likely will recover at least some of its money. The larger problem for the county is that a loss in the case will set a precedent for many other potential suits. They are gambling a few million that could cost them many millions. If this were poker, the county is “all in” for a relatively small bet and drawing to an inside straight.

32963: When did you start Asset Research and Recovery and what is its range of activities?

WILSON: I started Asset Research and Recovery in December 2010 with the help of some local investors. Its focus is recovering money for individual fee payers from counties and cities unlikely to voluntarily make refunds.

32963: What gave you the idea?

WILSON: I don’t have much trust in government in general, and I found there is more than $1 billion in impact fees on deposit. That’s billion with a “B”. I studied the laws and found that thousands of people were due refunds. It was also important that the business plan showed a good potential for providing employment to a large number of people as the business grew. My only mistake was underestimating the ability for the county to deny, deflect and delay.

32963: When did you step down as president and what is your current involvement with the company?

WILSON: I stepped down in September to work on other related projects. It was also clear that Commissioner Wheeler will not support anything I am in favor of for purely political reasons. It
was more important to get the refunds for citizens than for me to continue as CEO of Asset Research and Recovery.

I am pleased Asset Research and Recovery is continuing to successfully recover refunds based on my concept and plan. For example, just last month we recovered more than $100,000 for one company that didn’t know it had a refund coming. That helped the company keep its employees on the payroll.

32963: What are your other business or professional activities? What are you plans for the future?

WILSON: I continue to be in the advertising business and manage political campaigns through Media Arts Group. I also have two other companies, Open Permit Search Inc. and Impact Fee Consultants. The overall theme is the ability to gather and process large amounts of government data.

One application I’m working on is a way to detect and cure open permits that exist on thousands of properties and are serious impediments to real estate closings. We offer reports to identify the infected properties, assistance closing the problem permits and insurance similar to title insurance.

We will kick off this business in January. We are talking to investors and doing test markets at this time. The best way to describe it is like a CARFAX for houses. CARFAX started in the 1980s and is now one of northern Virginia’s largest private employers with 1,500 employees. I would like to do that here in Vero Beach.