State Republican leaders have taken one more step in offering hope to businesses denied by local commissioners: protection from a tax increase they say would cripple the pandemic recovery.

The Florida Senate voted 28-12 on Monday to roll back recent increases to impact fees on new construction.

The measure, which passed the House on April 21, now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign into law.

The move would be a big win for new businesses in Sumter County, where three newly elected commissioners reneged on a promise to study road impact fees over the summer and instead raised them by 75% last month.

Craig Estep, Oren Miller and Gary Search pushed the hike through with a 3-2 vote after rejecting an offer from The Villages Developer to pay 40% more on each home it builds in exchange for sparing new businesses elsewhere in the county for three years.

The new law would limit impact fee increases to 12.5% in one year and 50% over four years.

It is also written to be retroactive to Jan. 1, which would void the Estep-Miller-Search tax increase.

“This creates the predictability this marketplace needs,” said the Senate bill sponsor, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who is chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “Over the course of the last couple months, as we worked this bill out with many stakeholders, the consensus is this is overall a good bill.”

Bill Includes 'Relief Valve'

The bill provides “a relief valve” for local governments that can convince voters of a need to go higher. That would require an impact fee study within the past 12 months, two public workshops and a two-thirds vote.

In Sumter County, that bar was not met.

Sumter County Commission Chairman Garry Breeden voted against the Estep-Miller-Search tax increase saying he had promised not to raise taxes for at least five years after he supported a property tax increase in 2019.

“I’m going to honor that commitment,” he affirmed on Monday. “The only thing that would affect us is the retroactive language. If the governor signs it with that language in there, we’ll have to look at specifics to see if we need to take any action to comply with the new law.”

The Legislature’s response is the right decision, said Commissioner Doug Gilpin, who also voted against the Estep-Miller–Search tax increase.

“It really resets the stage where we can take a more reasonable approach to the business of Sumter County,” he said on Monday. “I wanted more research and current information as to where things were economically. To make the rash decision our board has made in a time of global pandemic, it’s really unbelievable. I’m glad the state has stepped in and feels the same way. I’m a strong Republican, and I support personal freedom and local business. A robust economy makes for a good community, and I want that to continue.”

First Proposed in 2019

 Commissioner Search said on Monday that he will explore legal recourse for the potential new limits on his tax-raising power.

 “I think the state took away the opportunity for taxpayers to have a voice in local government,” he said. “I’m going to need to get a legal opinion from our attorney on the details of the bill and any possible alternatives.”

Commissioners Estep and Miller did not return requests for comment.

Supporters of the Estep-Miller-Search tax increase have mischaracterized the statewide effort as an end-run around their local plan.

However, the bill was first sponsored by Rep. Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, in 2019 before the trio ran for office.

The Estep-Miller-Search tax increase dismissed the warnings of economists, business owners and community leaders. It also ignored the county’s own economic development staff, which recommended the current rate in 2019 and then supported the Developer’s offer of another 40% Feb. 16 that the trio rejected.

Even before the Estep-Miller-Search tax increase, Sumter County’s road impact fees were already higher than 69% of counties in Florida.

More than half of the state’s counties don’t charge any road impact fees at all.

“Kudos to Gov. DeSantis, Sen. [Dennis] Baxley, Rep. [Brett] Hage and our other Republican leaders in Tallahassee,” said John Temple, chairman of the Sumter County Republican Party. “The bill gives reasonable flexibility to local governments while curtailing extreme hikes like the 75% increase that our three new commissioners pushed through without taking into consideration consequences of their rushed action. Hopefully, the commissioners will take the opportunity to go back and look at other options that will better serve all of Sumter County,” Temple said. “We want leadership who value Republican principles and have a more conservative approach going forward.”

Specialty Editor Keith Pearlman contributed to this report. Specialty Editor David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.