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More refunds of old impact fees coming

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of January 12, 2012)

In a new twist on the long-running Fund 101 impact fee controversy, County Budget Director Jason Brown now says the fund contains more money than previously revealed – meaning more South Beach property owners will be getting refunds than had been  anticipated.

Fund 101 holds money collected by the county prior to 1999 on the barrier island south of Beachland to pay for infrastructure improvements necessitated by new development.

According to county ordinance, fees not spent within six years had to be refunded, but the same ordinance allowed only a one-year refund period and no one applied before the window closed in 2005.

For months Brown has been adamant most of the money was spent upgrading roads, leaving only $132,000 in principle along with more than $1 million in interest accrued on that amount and earned on fees later spent.

Now, after the county commission on Dec. 20 ordered staff to return the $132,000 with interest, Brown says the county’s figures were in error and the fund actually contains $255,000 in unspent fees.

“It is my mistake and I take responsibility for it,” Brown says. “There was an error in the way the expenditures were calculated back in 1996 and 1997. When we started going through the list to determine who would get a refund, we spotted the mistake.”

Former Vero Beach City Councilman Charlie Wilson discovered the existence of the $1.2-million fund and has been pushing for the past year to have all of it refunded to approximately 400 island homeowners.

Wilson filed a request for information the day after the commission vote asking for proof of account balances and a list of deposits to verify the $132,000 figure provided by Brown was correct, but Brown says the error did not come to light because of that request.

According to the commission’s Dec. 20 decision, only about 110 residents would have received refunds and commissioners were divided about how refundees would be selected. They ordered County Attorney Alan Polackwich to draft an ordinance to guide the process, which apparently would pay back those who paid fees most recently, leaving early fee payers out of luck.

Now with nearly twice as much principle and interest available, more homeowners will receive refunds but some who Wilson says are due money will still be left out.

“We still have hopes that commissioners will realize that their credibility is at stake as well as the $1.2 million dollars and do the right thing and return [all] the money as they promised when impact fees were initially enacted,” Wilson says.

At the Dec. 20 meeting, Commissioners Peter O’ Bryan and Gary Wheeler initially opposed refunds, saying the money should be spent to upgrade the A1A/17th Street Causeway intersection, fulfilling the original purpose for which they were collected.

“I have not giving up on the idea of returning all the fees,” said Davis after the accounting discrepancy came to light.