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Commission Candidates Support a Jail Sales Tax, But Not the Way the County Went About It

| August 9, 2012

The razor wire at the Flagler County Jail has been less cutting that political divisions over the way to finance a county sales tax renewal, which county commissioners say is needed to pay for a bigger jail. (© FlaglerLive)

Last week the Flagler County Commission voted unanimously to shelve plans to send a sales-tax renewal to voters and renew the tax themselves, by at least four of their five votes, sometime this fall. Commissioners are fearful that if the sales tax referendum were held in November, voters would reject it, and the county would not have close to $2 million a year to build a jail commissioners claim is critically needed.

Not surprisingly, all five candidates running for three county commission seats are opposed to the sitting commissioners’ decision, particularly the manner in which that decision was reached. Four of the five are not opposed to a sales tax renewal necessarily, and even the fifth might go for it with more convincing information from the county. But all five candidates derided the commission for taking the decision away from voters, and for doing a shoddy job of making the case for the tax.

“That’s just wrong, let the people decide what they want to do. It’s their money,” says Dennis McDonald, one of two Republicans in the race for the seat Milissa Holland is vacating. He faces Frank meeker, the Palm Coast City Council member, in the Republican primary for that seat, with the winner facing Independent Abby Romaine come November.

McDonald, who represents the so-called Ronald Reagan Assemblies wing of local Republicans (a more insurgent version of the tea party), actually favors the tax: he sees the need for the revenue, and understands that it merely continues a tax that’s been in effect for two decades. He isn’t sure one way or the other if it would have failed had it gone to voters, particularly if a clearer case was made for it. But he won’t abide the unilateralism. “We’re being played. I don’t understand,” McDonald said. “I’m hoping people are watching this and saying we have to get commissioners in there that are going to let us decide, and not play us.”

It’s an easy position to take: challenging candidates are naturally prone to criticizing incumbents, if only to sharpen differences and underscore their case for change. But three of the five challengers, including McDonald, are running for Holland’s open seat, who’s stepping down in November as she runs for a Florida House seat in the interim. They don’t need to make a case against the incumbent (though it’s been common practice for candidates to score easy points by simply and generally bashing incumbents in general), but they are being asked about the sales tax on the campaign trail. Their opposition reflects an unease with commissioners’ own fragmentation on the issue, and their inability to reach a solid compromise with the cities’ support.

The county must split the sales tax revenue with the cities, but the main reason commissioners failed to agree among themselves—and with the cities—was that they couldn’t agree on the sharing formula. Palm Coast wants the formula to stay the way it is now, with the lion share of the money going to Palm Coast because that’s where the majority of the population is. The county wanted a formula closer to an even split. County commissioners finally decided that their unilateral vote this fall will create an open-ended sales tax (the 10-year term would be lifted), with revenue phasing into the county’s formula over eight years, giving cities time to adjust.

Meeker is in a position to say how he would have voted as a county commissioner and a city council member on the matter. He’s willing to go for the new split. “I think we can wean ourselves of that money, quite honestly, and I’m an optimist, I think we’ll see the economy turn around,” and revenue make up for the proportionate loss, he said, speaking as a council member. But speaking as a county commissioner, he said that he would have “preferred it to go to a referendum, just like it did last time. But it’s too late.”

Speaking as if he were already building relationships with commission members (Meeker has had his eyes on a commission seat for at least two years), he sounded a more conciliatory note about their decision last week. “If  the only option I’ve got is a supermajority vote for the half cent sales tax, then that’s what I have to do,” he said, noting that the commission got to that point only after “treading water” for months. He’s also not convinced a new jail or a big expansion is needed. He’s thinking about “modules” that get tacked onto the existing jail periodically, at a much smaller cost, an option Sheriff Don Fleming has been talking about as well—and that Herb Whitaker, a candidate for the commission in another district (he’s running against incumbent George Hanns) poke of directly to commissioners earlier this week, at a meeting.

“It’s not new, it’s not innovative, and it’s approved by all the entities that need to approve it, so why are we mired in having to build a $20 million jail—or whatever cost it’s going to be,” Whitaker said.

“Quite frankly I’m not comfortable with supermajority votes but I understand sometimes they’re necessary,  and I will say this, I think the jail is a necessary evil in our community, so we’re going to have to do something.”

But had he been a commissioner at the time of last week’s vote, he would have voted against. First, he said, the costs aren’t clear. Second, the commission was acting out of “crisis mode” for having waited too long to make a decision, leaving itself no other option. “I would have favored a referendum,” Whitaker said. And a broad public-education campaign, visiting social and civil clubs and cultural events such as Flagler Beach’s First Fridays. Commissioners are only now proposing to do just that.

“Yes we need the jail,” Whitaker said, “but I’m not one that’s trying to push that decision off on somebody else. I’m very willing to make that decision. But I just need more information than what they’ve put out there.” And the public should not be ignored, he said: “If you can’t sell it or get it passed then obviously the voice of the people is we don’t need it or don’t want it.”

Alan Peterson, who’s also running for re-election, and Hanns, had both favored at least holding a straw vote that would have asked the public which way they would favor paying for a new jail. That idea didn’t convince the rest of the commission, and both commissioners joined their colleagues for the supermajority option.

Charlie Ericksen, who’s running against Peterson, repeats the same complaint: the choice should have been the voters’, not the commission’s.

Still, he supports the half-cent sales tax, and would have voted for it as a commissioner—but not for a full-blown jail. When he spoke, he did so by phone from Brevard County, where he was visiting, and where, he said, the county had adopted a system of “modular” jail space that doesn’t require the building of an entire institution. Word of those modular buildings appeared to have spread very quickly among the commission candidates. That’s the approach he’d favor now.

“We’ve dragged our feet on taking action on jail expansion and we’ve got to pay for the past sins of the past commissions, and county administrators,” Ericksen said. “This should have been taken up a long time ago, and the expense would have been less. In fact the county administrator did a survey, or he got some numbers on what a jail would cost three years ago, and nothing happened.”

If the public were to vote on the tax, however, it would probably not pass, Ericksen said, “because they don’t have the information.”

But the county commissioners “are not asking people for anything more than what they’re paying today,” Ericksen said, “and that’s one of the things they can educate them on, because we already have  a half-cent sales tax on the books, and it should be continued.” Another caveat: Ericksen doesn’t favor an open-ended tax, as some commissioners are proposing. He wants it term-limited.

At a candidate forum at the Realtors building late last month, the commission candidates, including Peterson (but not Hanns) sat for their presentations and a few questions. When asked a yes or no question on whether they supported the tax, all of them said yes. They were not allowed to elaborate. There was one exception: “Just to be contrarian,” Romaine, the Independent, said, “I’ll vote no.” That comment startled several of her fellow-candidates, who remarked about it later in interviews.

But Romaine later elaborated: “I would want the people to vote on it,” she said.

“The bottom line for me is no plan, no money. Taxpayers should never endorse blank checks. Because for me you’re almost asking the wrong question, with all this hysteria over creating a new jail. We don’t know what the nature of the overcrowding is.” If juveniles or the mentally ill are taking up space in the jail, they shouldn’t be there, she said: they should be in a juvenile facility, or an institution for the mentally ill. If it’s people suffering from substance abuse, an expansion of drug court might alleviate the overcrowding. But all that information needs to be spelled out. “We can’t just operate under knee-jerk reactions,” she said. “People don’t know this about me but I’m a fiscal conservative. I’m thinking about stress on our businesses and our homeowners and tax payers.”

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9 Responses for “Commission Candidates Support a Jail Sales Tax, But Not the Way the County Went About It”

  1. Herb Whitaker says:

    For those who are not familiar with the product I presented to the BCC Monday, I will put the link here. This is a product that satisfies some of those on this site who have asked for tents for the prisoners, even though these are modulars not tents, but quite similar. Since the Monday presentation, which was only 3 minutes long because I could not get agenda time to present the power point so all citizens could see what is included on the site I am linking, I have received pricing on these modulars and it is about 10% of the total cost of what the commission is proposing to spend. One of the units shown in the Brevard picture is 50 ft x 210 ft, approximately 10,500 square feet in size and houses 100 inmates.
    According to the manufacturer’s representative that I have been in contact with, well, here is a portion of his email to me which I copy/pasted here: “The Sprung is around $35-$40 per square foot (measured length x width) delivered to site. It will be erected at a rate of about $5-$6 per square foot. After that, your costs will vary for…site prep, concrete, all subs (electrical, plumbing, etc.) and all interior build out. Consider $100-$150 per square foot a solid number based on previous projects. Of course, that is a pretty wide swath, but ultimately we don’t know the size and scope yet. Again, costs will be very comparative to metal.” Multiplying $150 (top end of pricing) times 10,500 square feet and you have a price of $1,575,000, as opposed to the $20 Million, Hanns and group wants to spend. Don’t you think this product is good stewardship of your taxes, which the existing BCC members want to spend and have known about since 2006 and yet Hanns and Holland did not ressurect this product but kept it in the drawers. Even if it runs $2,000,000 with additional segregation construction in the interior we are still way ahead in dollars spent. Check out the link and tell me your thoughts, please.
    The Sprung is around $35-$40 per square foot (measured length x width) delivered to site. It will be erected at a rate of about $5-$6 per square foot. After that, your costs will vary for…site prep, concrete, all subs (electrical, plumbing, etc.) and all interior build out. Consider $100-$150 per square foot a solid number based on previous projects. Of course, that is a pretty wide swath, but ultimately we don’t know the size and scope yet. Again, costs will be very comparative to metal.
    The Sprung is around $35-$40 per square foot (measured length x width) delivered to site. It will be erected at a rate of about $5-$6 per square foot. After that, your costs will vary for…site prep, concrete, all subs (electrical, plumbing, etc.) and all interior build out. Consider $100-$150 per square foot a solid number based on previous projects. Of course, that is a pretty wide swath, but ultimately we don’t know the size and scope yet. Again, costs will be very comparative to metal. These units, as opposed to the rhetoric Hanns said at the meeting, can be and would be air conditioned and would not be 100 degrees inside. I do have more information, but this should suffice for you to see the viability of this type product, which is built to the hurricane standards after hurricane Andrew. There is also another fact the manufacturer states in their materials, in Buras, Louisiana the only building left standing after Katrina went through their town, was a Sprung modular building.
    Here are 3 links, the first one may have to be copy/pasted because it would not paste from the original.
    http://www.sprung.com. and http://archive.sprung.com/upload/_CORRECTIONSsm.pdf. and
    http://archive.sprung.com/upload/ICE_WillacyCounty.pdf

    More to say, but this is enough for now.

  2. Joe says:

    Way to many campaign signs everywhere, what an eyesore, how attractive they all must be to all of our summer visitors!!!

  3. tulip says:

    @ Joe Hang in there, most of the signs will disappear in a few days. I will be glad when this Primary is over. Then 3 more months of constant bashing between Romney and Obama, arrghh. At least we can look forward to a politic—free Thanksgiving and Christmas!

  4. palmcoaster says:

    We don’t need to spend 22 million on a new jail to benefit the developer and the ones in the BOCC and administration pushing for it, in the middle of a financial crisis and in the highest unemployment rate county in Florida. This is just plain rip off! Good idea the BOCC candidate here and have it paid with the traffic violations, drugs forfeitures,etc., etc, that now we don’t know who pockets it now!

  5. Lonewolf says:

    Stop this nonsense and vote them out

  6. Will says:

    If you haven’t, look at the links in Herb Whitaker’s response. The Sprung correctional facilities are amazing, and presently house over 300,000 inmates.

  7. Clint says:

    Why not use half of that “multi-million dollar” flagler court house building and use it as a new jail. Save the cost of transporting prisoners to and from court. There’s enough room in that building to house all the homeless people too. I saw a security guard para-sailing down one of the corridors last month. I heard they hold parties on one of the floors when court is not going on. How much does it cost flagler tax payers just to have all those windows washed ?

  8. palmcoaster says:

    Clint I agree..that King Hammond Palace on our pockets needs to be internally partitioned and house there the non violent prisoners waiting for trial…as I been suggesting since I first heard of this frivolous project to be forced paid by the Palm Coast tax revenue again and again and again after all those Taj Mahals..
    But if we go this way then no developer, county administrator or BOCC seat will get any “benefit”..get it?

  9. Jim Neuenfeldt says:

    I’m not so sure the Supreme Court would allow prisoners in the Taj Mahal…
    Something abut Cruel and Unusual Punishment LOL

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