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Fearing Rejection at the Ballot Box, County Opts to Renew Sales Tax Unilaterally

| July 31, 2012

Craig Coffey, the county manager, now must craft a sales tax package his county commission can sell to the public before it unilaterally passes it by mid-November. (© FlaglerLive)

Craig Coffey, the county manager, now must craft a sales tax package his county commission can sell to the public before it unilaterally passes it by mid-November. (© FlaglerLive)

Flagler County voters will not get to say yes or no this fall to continuing a half-cent sales tax that’s been on the books for two decades. The sales tax expires on Dec. 31. Rather, to ensure that the sales tax does continue, and to prevent its rejection at the ballot box, the Flagler County Commission today decided to vote in the sales tax itself—as it is allowed to do by law—with a so-called super-majority vote of the commission, when at least four of five members agree to impose the tax.

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Today’s decision is the latest upshot of a series of political missteps by the county, a failure to clearly educate the public on what was at stake, and a degree of intransigence by Palm Coast. What should have been an almost routine referendum renewal turned into a damaging muddle between Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and the county, as the cities and the county disagreed over revenue sharing and county commissioners squabbled between themselves over the best strategy.

The county wanted a larger share than it’s been getting the last 10 years. The cities resisted, Palm Coast especially, saying it has the largest share of the county’s population, so it should preserve the largest share of the revenue.

The battle tarnished the referendum’s credibility. None of the commissioners wanted to see the tax expire. But it didn’t help that the county was also muddled over its intentions with the revenue: the county wants to build a new jail, or expand its existing one, but it’s been incapable of explaining convincingly why the jail expansion is needed and how much it will actually cost. The resulting mess dimmed the prospects of success at the polls, compelling commissioners to choose the more certain but also more arbitrary option of passing a sales tax unilaterally—which may also cost them when they are themselves up for election. Only one is: George Hanns. Milissa Holland is resigning her commission seat in November. She’s running for a Florida House seat. But the timing of the sales tax issue with the election won’t help the commission, as candidates could claim that the decision is being made to beat the clock–and their potential accession to the commission, where they may not have provided the votes necessary for a super-majority of four.

But going with a unilateral vote appeared to be the last viable option to keep the tax going.

Barbara Revels.

“There is no choice. We have to do it,” Brabara Revels, the commission chairman, said. “I understand that there are people here that cannot take that position this evening, but I am willing to take that position, and I’ll take the heat for it, and I’ll do every bit of education I can. I’ll go to any organization, I’ll go to any citizen’s group, any neighborhood watch group. You call me, I will come. I will go through the presentation. I will do every bit of education I can. But I believe we’ve got to come to an agreement with the cities, and we have to just take the heat and vote it in.”

Revels echoed similar conviction from Commissioner McLaughlin, and she spoke with a lilt of surprise about her actually agreeing with him on this one issue. The two Realtors don’t frequently see eye to eye, politically or professionally.

Part of Tuesday’s decision is to conduct a broad public education campaign to ease the way to the commission’s vote. But for that, commissioners and the administration will have to be on the same page regarding the scope of the jail expansion–itself a hard task, when even Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming appeared not entirely convinced that a new jail or a vast expansion was necessarily the way. In an informal discussion with two challengers Saturday–Jim Manfre and John Pollinger–Fleming said the jail could be expanded by way of prefabricated pods, piecemeal, with each pod costing a few million dollars and accommodating a few dozen inmates. That would significantly reduce the financial pressure on the county, though the more the jail expands, the more annual operational costs increase. Those costs may not be paid for with sales tax revenue, but with property tax revenue. Expect the property tax to increase, too, given tepid growth trends.

Politically, County Administrator Craig Coffey had presented different options to the commission, among them a straw vote giving voters the ability to say what sort of tax they preferred (not whether a tax should be renewed or imposed) between a sales tax and the property tax. That option had some support from Hanns and Alan Peterson, but it did not carry the day, as other commissioners called it needless and confusing. The commission could also have chosen to do nothing. But that would have ended a $4 million a year revenue stream to the county and the cities (with Palm Coast currently getting around $2.6 million of that.)

By voting in the sales tax renewal, as opposed to winning the renewal at the ballot box, the county is foregoing a crucial power: it may not bond the revenue, the way it could if voters were to approve the renewal. That means the county will be giving up the power to borrow much larger chunks of money to accomplish some of its needs, the way it did with its previous sales tax renewal in 2000. That renewal led to the building boom that yielded the county’s Emergency Operations Center, the new administration building, the courthouse and other, lesser projects.

The commission is still looking for clarity on the way the tax will be designed. But the tax will be renewed for at least 15 years, possibly longer—and possibly with no expiration date. It will be renewed before mid-November, so there’s no lag in revenue collection. The formula that splits the revenue between the county and the cities has yet to be worked out, but the county is proposing the following approach: it will significantly increase its share at the expense of the cities’ share, but that expansion will be phased in over eight years giving the cities time to adjust. Over the course of those eight years, the county argues, expected growth would more than make up for reduced revenue.

Palm Coast doesn’t argue that. But it does argue that, by the same token, most of that growth will take place in Palm Coast, and all of that urban growth will significantly increase demands on the city’s infrastructure, making it difficult either way to accept a reduction in revenue.

jon netts palm coast mayor city council

Jon Netts. (© FlaglerLive)

Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, who has led the charge against the county’s attempt to change the revenue formula, was lukewarm to the commission’s action Tuesday evening. “Philosophically I do not agree that just because the county needs to build a jail, that they a priori need to have the lion share of the money, or the greater share of the money. But that’s something we need to discuss,” Netts said. “I have one vote, one point of view. If there’s an agreement to go with that, so be it, I’ll go with the majority. But to say that it’s going to be in perpetuity, no, that, I’m not going to accept.”

It was Netts who, weeks ago in a joint meeting with Revels and other city representatives, had suggested a sales tax in perpetuity. But that proposal, he said today, was predicated on a formula favorable to Palm Coast, given that Palm Coast will remain the urban core of the county, and that it generates 79 percent of every sales tax dollar in Flagler. Netts still insists on a formula that won’t hurt the city’s future needs. “There’s got to be some room here somewhere for some kind of fair, reasonable distribution,” he said. “I will not accept the argument that the county’s needs are somehow superior to our needs. They’re just different.”

But the county, even less as it votes in the tax renewal by county commission vote, doesn’t need the cities’ approval for its plan. It will tender a compromise of its own, but it will vote it in regardless, based on the unanimous motion it approved today. That can be risky, of course: to vote in a sales tax renewal will be politically costly regardless, but to do so without the support of the cities will be vastly more so. And it was just that sort of disagreement that led to the referendum’s failure.

“My suspicion is that if we hadn’t initiated this distribution discussion, if we’d simply proceeded and said as the school board is saying, we want to continue an existing tax, there would have been very little dispute, very little discussion. I think it would have passed,” Netts said.  But raising questions that didn’t get clear answers put doubt in voters’ minds. “Now we need to stand up before the voters and say, we’ve come to a conclusion, we all agree to this, this is the way it should be,” Netts said.

That will be commissioners’ job in coming months.

The county’s portion of the sales tax does not affect the other half-cent sales tax facing renewal—the Flagler County School Board’s. That measure will be on the ballot as a referendum, on Aug. 14. It has unanimous support from all local government agencies. The school board feared that the continued bickering over the county’s sales tax might jeopardize the school’s referendum. It might very well have—and could still, as voters confuse the two. But by putting the issue to rest today, the county commission was also hoping to put that confusion and controversy to rest, granting the school referendum clearer sailing.

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30 Responses for “Fearing Rejection at the Ballot Box, County Opts to Renew Sales Tax Unilaterally”

  1. Revfrank Currier says:

    is this like Obama’s executive orders,vote them all out of office!

  2. Dadgum says:

    Reading this, I’m going to change my mind and agree w/Chairwoman Barbara Revels on this one. I believe her when she says we do need it. Yes, there was a lack of education and more squabbling than anything.

  3. Clint says:

    Do you see what these money hunger political puppets just attempted to STEAL from the citizens of Palm Coast. Oh the sh*t is going to hit the FAN !!!!!!!…..Everday something more vile and disgusting slithers out the PC holes ready to strike the poor unemployed, house foreclosed on, zombies to steal their childs last quarter and give it to The Sheriff of Nottingham so he can build a BIG BIG jail. More inmate means more county jobs giving to inmates who make a dollar a day but the Sheriff of Nottingham will bring in 1000 dollars for that inmates labor….Are we beginning to so the pattern here citizens ? ……Please learn and Please VOTE !!!!

  4. Bronx Guy says:

    I agree completely with Mayor Netts and the Council. The distribution formula should remain the same or perhaps even increased in the City’s favor. Those who vote in favor of the tax should be reminded that election day will be upon them some day.

  5. Home Grown says:

    We have a commission that is out of control and who does what they want. They don’t present them selves as professionals and don’t feel they need to answer to anyone. Can’t wait until the voters speak at the ballot box in a couple of weeks. We need commissioners who will work for us, listen to us, and show respect. This is a clear message that the commissioners doesn’t respect what the voters may want, and they are going to do what they want knowing we the voters may not approve. Despicable!

    • Magnolia says:

      Is it the Commission or the County Manager? Remember, this is the guy who put his own contract renewal on the agenda without a vote.

      They all need to go. Save Flagler Beach, VOTE EM OUT.

      Tulip: Going to disagree with you on this one. These people work for US. They seem to have forgotten that. When they stop listening to the voters, they have to go.

      If we don’t want to spend the money, that’s up to the voters and the good folks who live here and pay the bills.

  6. Jambaliya says:

    This isn’t real politics where sound decisions are made for the benefit of the community, this is a bunch of children bickering and fighting, it is so embarrassing. The title of this article says it all and I for one am gonna let anyone in office know how I feel on election day,its time for some serious changes!!!!

  7. PalmCoast says:

    This is very sad that voters were not included in this decision….since the money will be coming from us the residents! I know I will be keeping these people in mind at election time!

    • Ron says:

      This is only partially true.

      There is no question that the residents here contribute to paying this 1/2% sales tax, but so does everyone else outside of Flagler who happens to spend money here: vacationers, snowbirds, people passing through, residents of neighboring counties, etc.

      I would much rather see this kind of tax as opposed to an increase to the property tax – a tax which is fully placed on the shoulders of the folks who actually live here.

  8. Jim J says:

    No REvels you did not have to do it. You do not care what voters want

  9. question says:

    Good…$ needed…one less thing we’ll have to listen to the tea party endlessly bloviate about.

    “the other half-cent sales tax facing renewal—the Flagler County School Board’s. That measure will be on the ballot as a referendum, on Aug. 14.” —Also Good… Vote your yea or nay.

  10. Biker says:

    Time to clean house. The commision took away our right to vote on this issue for fear the voters wouldnt pass it? This did not take away our right to vote them out. Are you happy with the way this county is run? Do you like being disenfranchised? It is time to vote out all incumbents. We need a fresh start with fresh ideas. It is apparent from this incident that these elected officials do not value the input.of the voters. .

    • The honest one says says:

      Biker Bob, you are so right, let’s hope the tax payers go to the poles in November and vote them all out.

  11. Gia says:

    It’s to all voters to say yes or no to the sales tax.

  12. Lonewolf says:

    It’s a simple choice…if you don’t want commissioners who ignore the public then VOTE THEM OUT. I intend to vote for their opponents

  13. tulip says:

    From what I read Mr Peterson and Mr Hahns were in favor of a straw poll on the ballot to give the voters a choice of whether they wanted it added on to property tax or continue with the sales tax as it already is. Then Mr Hahns voted the other way, as he often votes with the majority and they all voted against Peterson’s suggestion of a straw poll.

    I think the majority of people know we need a jail and PC needs to redo its infrastructure and that keeping the sales tax as it has been for many many years is not a new hardship on anyone, and because it’s a sales tax, residents and tourists as well contribute to the sales tax fund..

  14. The honest one says says:

    Regarding the building of a new jail. Will Barbara Revels get the bid on the new jail? Of which she will put through an executive order to get the jail built. Do you realize all the extra expense involved,let the prisoners double up, let them suffer for the crimes they commit. People wake up, these commissioners do not give a rats a— about you, they will conduct business as usual (the Obama WAY) VOTE THEM ALL OUT and get Revels out the next time….

  15. palmcoaster says:

    Time to add recall provision to the county and state charters. Because will be the half cent tax and also a tax increase, you bet. Where are all those Tea Partiers complaints now?

  16. palmcoaster says:

    These commissioners want to make sure they get their extra 48,000 or so compensations plus their juicy retirement….about the only thing they really care for. Besides some developers maybe gift memberships election contributions and or bonuses.

  17. Chris says:

    Our property tax’s will GO UP regardless…. just wait & see.

  18. question says:

    Bend Dover -ha-ha…

    Don’t run red lights. — — Red light ticket cost problem: GONE

    Not Palm Coast, Fire Dept, camera company etc etc’s fault

    if you get caught running a red light on camera.

    • Samuel Smith says:

      Wrong there, next month I have to head to court to show that the red light camera ticket I got was for someone else, driving an entirely different model vehicle, with the wrong tag.

  19. ricky says:

    Coffey is the ring leader. The commisioners are just puppets under Coffey and are brain dead or too scared to make stand and go against him..

  20. K says:

    Does anyone know what happens if the state steps in and requires the county to build a jail?

  21. Art Blakely says:

    Super majority? Is that what THEFT in Flagler County is called now?

    I am voting whoever is in office OUT ! They do not deserve to remain in office.

  22. Herb Whitaker says:

    First I have to disclose that I am a candidate for Flagler Board of County Commission, District 5 and will be on the November ballot. I have been reading this thread and have to interject my opinion, if you will.
    I agree with the majority here who believe they should have a chance to speak their mind about how they will be taxed, not if, but how. Our taxes will be increased for this, but by what method. You will hear that this is a continuation tax, but since the existing sales tax expires 12/31, it is not a revision of that tax which has/had a 10 year expiration time but it is a new tax with a 15 year term.
    You will soon be reading in the DBNJ answers to some questions the candidates were asked last week and again this Monday before the meeting discussed here. I answered 2 new questions to the reporter doing this project. Here is the answer to one of the questions copy/pasted from my email:
    How do you feel the county should proceed with regards to jail expansion?
    Question: How do you feel the county should proceed with regards to jail expansion?

    “Expansion of the jail is going to take place, either voluntarily or by mandate from the State or Federal government. It is an issue that the BOCC has avoided for many years which is inexcusable. Now, in crisis mode, it has come to a point where continuation of the 1/2 cent sales tax by referendum or super-majority vote of the BOCC, or an increase of ad valorem taxes by the BOCC, is necessary.
    I prefer the referendum process which gives the voice to the people to speak. If successful then the tax funds received can be bonded and a full expansion could proceed. If unsuccessful then it comes to whether the BOCC decides to vote to overrule the voice of the people and impose the 1/2 cent sales tax, or to increase ad valorem taxes during the next budget season. Either way, a continuation of an existing tax or higher taxes is coming.
    The latter method would only provide for a staged expansion to proceed as the funds are collected and these funds cannot be bonded. Either of the mandated methods will alienate the people if they vote against the referendum, but as a county commissioner I want to hear what opinions are of the constituents I will represent.”
    Yesterday I met with a friend who gave me an alternative solution to this subject. I have asked for his permission to use this material and if I get a favorable go-ahead I will address this solution at the next BCC meeting, which is Monday morning. It is a very viable solution, less costly than what is proposed, saves some of the architectural study costs, and meets the requests of many on this site in other threads I have read. If favorable I will post here whether I will make the 3 minute presentation (only time allocated to the public to speak at meetings, which is also an issue I would like to address when elected.) I earnestly believe I will get the approval!
    Thanks for your time, and sorry for the lengthy post.

  23. tulip says:

    I posted this link last night, but I guess I didn’t “go throught” This article about the jail explains why the BOCC did what they did. What I also don’t understand is why it isn’t in today’s NJ.

  24. FlaglerLive says:

    A comment by Ben Dover was inappropriately approved, and has been taken down. No suggestion of violence or intimidation of anyone–hinted, wishful or real–including against elected officials or politicians, will be tolerated. We appreciate the individual who emailed us to point out the abuse, and invite readers to do likewise when they feel comments are inadmissibly approved. We aim for a liberal approval policy, but sometimes either mistakenly overlook abuse or misjudge it.

  25. tulip says:

    @ HERB WHITAKER Well, I see that you have a well thought out understanding of the jail issue, which is “plus” in your campaign. I might also add, it’s one of the few intelligent posts here. I watched the meeting on July 31 and I liked the idea of pods that can be added to the existing jail, as needed.

    I’ve been paying the sales tax here for years, so I wouldn’t even notice it. I also learned on the tv that ALL of the one half cent is not going to the jail, but that a portion of it is going to the other cities in FC. That brings Palm Coast into the fray, which is a whole other story.

    Perhaps you could post on Flagler Chat what you posted here?

    • Herb Whitaker says:

      I posted it of FC as you asked. Thanks for the kind words. I have read here where you are a regular watcher of BCC meetings, I hope you will watch Monday’s. I will speak at the first opportunity.

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