Abby Romaine: The Live Interview
Flagler County Commission, District 2
FlaglerLive | October 24, 2012
Abby Romaine is an Independent candidate for the Flagler County Commission, District 2, facing Republican Frank Meeker in the Nov. 6 election.
Three commission seats were up this year. In August, Charlie Ericksen defeated incumbent Alan Peterson in the District 1 race. County Commissioner Milissa Holland had two years to go in her term, but she elected to resign on Nov. 6 and run for the newly drawn Florida House seat that, for the first time in two generations, includes all of Flagler County. That opened up the District 2 seat. Meeker this month resigned his seat on the Palm Coast City Council.
In both races, all registered Flagler County voters may cast a ballot, whatever their party, whatever their address: Commissioners represent specific districts, but they are elected by all Flagler County voters, including every city’s voters.
A county commissioner is paid $48,061 a year. The salary is set by state law, based on county population, but paid out of local dollars.
FlaglerLive submitted 14 identical questions to all four commission candidates, who replied in writing, with the understanding that some follow-up questions may be asked, and that all exchanges would be on the record. Each candidate was also given the opportunity to ask his or her opponent three questions, which appear following the FlaglerLive questions. Follow-up questions, when necessary, appear in italics, and may be awaiting answers.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- What qualifies you to run?
- Impact fees
- The county jail
- Residential development and the economy
- The county’s economic development council
- Beach renourishment
- Amendment 4’s revenue cut
- Environmentally Sensitive Lands program
- Domestic partnership registry
- County Administrator Craig Coffey
- Evaluating the County Commission
- Who’s your model commissioner?
- Your temperament
- Opponent’s questions
Place and Date of Birth: January 12, 1972, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Current job: Coordinator of the Flagler County Safe Havens: Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Grant Program $30,000
To avoid any conflict of interest, I resigned from this job to run for office due to a federal law called the Hatch Act, but I continue the work as a volunteer.
Party Affiliation: Independent.
The role of the County Commission is to drive the vision and short and long-term goals of the community. I have experience driving vision and big picture ideas. I will bring a fresh, new perspective to the County Commissionwith an emphasis on high citizen participation and accessibility.
I am not a politician. I am a public servant with public policy experience. This is my first run for public office. I am a radio talk show creator, producer and host on WNZF News Radio and a political analyst on America’s Radio News network. On my Radio show, I have conducted interviews with leaders from both sides of the political spectrum, from presidential contenders Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann to Media Matters’s Eric Boehlert and Melanie Roussell, the Democratic National Committee’s Press Secretary, and have been successful in finding consensus and prompting bipartisan discussions of issues. On the nationally broadcast America’s Radio News Network, I have reported on national and state political issues. Locally, I am the Vice President of the Hammock Conservation Coalition.
I coordinated Flagler County’s Safe Havens program, a collaborative effort funded through the US Department of Justice to create a supervised visitation center to help families suffering from domestic violence. Due to the Hatch Act and to avoid any conflict of interest, I resigned to run for office, but have continued the work as a volunteer.
I am an Ivy League-trained anthropologist. My doctoral research focused on domestic violence, public policy and the Family Court system. I designed and taught a new course of study at the University of Pennsylvania called Public Interest Anthropology. I have also developed efficient procedures for victims of domestic violence to navigate the court system. I am business minded leader and will facilitate solution-driven discussion. I have successfully brought diverse points of view together to develop compromise solutions. These skills will serve me well on the County Commission.
Journalist to journalist, we’d be first to say that asking questions is easier than answering them, or crafting solutions for them. How is your journalistic and academic background, absent any service on any government committee or council or advisory board to date, a strength, especially in light of your opponent Frank Meeker’s immersion in local politics over the past half dozen years?
Vision. Independence. Integrity. As a journalist and an academic I have developed a broad world view about the issues facing our government and our communities. I am trained to be disciplined in getting the facts and not just rely on my own perspective or the perspective of someone who may have a special interest in the outcome of an issue. The process of attacking an issue from many different angles is critical to creating good public policy and good decision-making. I don’t pretend to know the answers to all the issues facing Flagler County. But, what I can promise is that I will consult with experts, with stakeholders and residents to develop smart solutions that work. My opponent got his start working for a large developer. I believe this has shaped and limited his world view and hampered his ability to address problems broadly.
2. Would you have supported the county’s impact fee moratorium? If so, what is your evidence that such a moratorium can create a substantial number of jobs, and how do you explain to those who have paid impact fees that current builders and home-buyers won’t have to?
I do not support the two-year moratorium on impact fees. We need a balanced plan. Proponents of the moratorium argue that it will simulate the economy by creating jobs in the construction industry. Opponents argue that resident tax payers will have to absorb the cost of the impact. Residents will pay twice: first for their own impact and a second time for the new development.
I proposed a compromise solution that uses a best business marketing practice: offer a short –term incentive plan with a cap: the first 50 permits pulled in the next six months will have their impact fees waived. This will incentivize builders to pull permits, thus stimulating the industry. It is also measurable to determine the effectiveness of the program and will allow the government to calculate the exact amount of lost revenue, thus not overburdening existing home owners.
My opponent has claimed my idea to be “illegal.” This does not surprise me. This is the line the big developers, who are represented by my opponent, are using to oppose the compromise position, since their ultimate goal is to eliminate impact fees entirely.
This compromise solution is an innovative, non-bureaucratic idea and would be implemented in accordance with the law.
What would stop a single developer from pulling all 50 permits, and how would any measure designed to avert such a maneuver not prove to be discriminatory?
My proposal to implement an incentive based approach to reducing impact fees is both fiscally sound and entirely legal. After hearing my opponent’s suggestion that there could be legal issues associated with such a proposal, I consulted with 3 attorneys who see no legal impediment to this concept. This is a drafting issue and is easily resolved by limiting any single person or entity from pulling more than some prescribed number. It is not discriminatory. Everyone has the same right of access. The plan, it’s effective date and requirements would be published. It would be fair with equality of access. The single required element to any legal plan is to treat people the same and my proposal does that.
But let’s face it, what the developers and their allies, such as my opponent, really want to do is to eliminate impact fees permanently and shift the burden to all of us ordinary citizens in the form of higher property taxes. We have already paid our impact fees when we built or bought our homes and it is not fair to have us pay again.
Simply put, we do not know the extent of the need and we should not be imposing new taxes without taking the following steps.
Step 1: Needs Assessment
Step 2: Develop low cost, phased construction plan
Step 3: Bid out project.
Unfortunately, our County Commission, with support of my opponent, have put the cart before the horse by imposing a new tax before taking Steps 1-3 outlined above.
We need to avoid the massive capital expenditures and ongoing costs that were incurred in building the Government Services Building and the County Court Building. As County Commissioner, I will not approve spending without clear goals and objectives and established deliverables based on reliable data and research.
Our long term needs should be addressed with good planning. This should include a flexible phased building plan to extend the prison facility in light of short, medium and long term needs.
Let’s not mortgage our community’s future for needs that may never materialize. My bottom line: No plan, no money—taxpayers should never endorse blank checks.
Residential development and tourism are vital components to our community’s success and future. As we look to the future, we need to have a more balanced economy in order to avoid the boom and bust cycle that we have just experienced. We need to forge a new identity as a community that welcomes small and medium sized businesses in target industries, including financial services, technology and tourism and development. We are well positioned to compete for the 75 million retiring baby boomers, many of whom will start small to mid-sized businesses in their early retirement. We need to streamline regulation, keep taxes low and preserve our natural and fiscal resources.
The answer is very general and appears to outlines a wish list rather than draft a prescription. Could you be more specific as to how you would achieve the goals you’re setting out, rather than what the goals are, since there is quite a consensus regarding the ‘what’ portion?
The question is a “what” question. I believe my other responses provide the answers to the important issues. In addition, my website provides additional information.
5. The county has been talking about economic development since the bursting of the housing bubble, and in 2011 established its own jobs council. Those efforts have yet to bear fruit. Evaluate the jobs council’s performance. What measurable outcome would point to a successful economic development effort, and what do you intend to do, as commissioner, to get to that outcome?
The Economic Opportunity Advisory Council is comprised of a group of outstanding community leaders who are committed to economic advancement of Flagler County. One of our greatest resources is our residents who have had successful careers in a variety of industries. The Council has a sound vision/mission statement. But now we need to put their mission into action and we cannot sit back in Flagler County and wait for businesses to come to us. Like any corporation selling its goods and services, we need to market and sell Flagler County by:
• Print advertizing in targeted trade publications
• Website development and advertizing
• Development of established incentives (including abatements) for new and expanding businesses
• Meetings with prospective new business from out of area
• Attendance at trade shows in targeted industries.
In addition, we need to reconsider our list of targeted industries by adding financial services, insurance, avionics and technology. These are industries that surrounding areas, including St. Johns, Volusia and Orlando have had success in attracting. With our airport, FAA training facility, future National Guard Base, infrastructure, beaches and intracoastal, Flagler has even more to offer. It is just a matter of marketing and education.
Are you suggesting that the council is not fulfilling the steps you outlined above?
The EOAC is in its early stages and has a sound plan and leadership. It is doing an admirable job. We all need to rally behind the EOAC and work together to achieve the goals of attracting businesses, jobs and economic activity to Flagler County. My response is a call to action for the entire community. We need more focus, more intensity and more support. The County Commission needs to monitor the EOAC’s success in order to allocate our scarce public resources to activities and projects that have a meaningful economic impact.
6. To what extent would you support paying for beach renourishment with county tax dollars, in Flagler Beach and elsewhere along the Flagler coast, if that’s what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommends?
Let’s face it. Most people choose to move to Flagler County because of our beautiful coastline. It is our prized feature and our economic lifeblood. We should take all reasonable steps to protect our beaches for the sake of our economy and our way of life.
The US Army Corps of Engineers has recommended a 1.7 million dollar feasibility study for the proper mitigation of the beach erosion. The City of Flagler beach, in conjunction with some dedicated community leaders, have researched alternative beach restoration plans and have decided that the undercurrent stabilizers of Holmberg technologies would be the most cost-effective and least environmentally damaging method to pursue. The City of Flagler was awarded a grant request from the Tourist Development Council in the amount of $50,000 for the first phase of the Holmberg plan. It would be worthwhile to see the results of this phase. If the deliverables are favorable to beach restoration, the Count y would not need to dredge and backfill with sand, per recommendation of the US Army Corps of Engineers.
7. Amendment 4 is the proposed constitutional amendment that would expand the homestead exemption to first-time home-buyers and cut in half (to 5 percent) the limit at which non-homesteaded properties may be assessed every year. The Florida League of Cities opposes the amendment, saying it will further reduce local governments’ ability to raise revenue. Where do you stand on Amendment 4?
Close call, but I’ll vote No on Amendment 4. My rationale: 1. takes away local control for setting tax rates in certain circumstances; 2. the tax incentive for first time homeowners will result in increased taxes for others, many of whom are on fixed incomes; and 3. many citizens have relied on the current tax structure in making real estate and retirement decisions. We do need to address the current phenomenon of increased property taxes on homesteaders whose values have declined and we also need to keep overall tax rates down. I have a comprehensive plan that will achieve both objectives.
8. “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said. Do you agree? Do you consider local government taxes to be too high or too little? If there was one tax reform you could implement locally, what would it be?
I will oppose new taxes. Assuming a constant population, we have enough money to run an effective county government. I will watch our tax dollars like a hawk and will abide by my motto for fiscal responsibility — No plan, no money: taxpayers should never endorse blank checks. I will cut waste in county government by redirecting efforts toward the priorities of the residents.
I have listened to Flagler County residents as well as business owners and other stakeholders. Based on what I have heard, I will work with the County Commission to develop the right STRATEGIC PLAN for the County and its governments. Then we will deliver on the plan in a cost effective and efficient manner.
We will do so, by engaging in an intense process of making County government more efficient. We will do this by (1) implementing the operational excellence and lean six sigma methodologies used at the best American corporations and (2) developing a flexible and dynamic workforce of motivated and energized public employees.
I have worked in Flagler County government and can assure you that we have a dedicated and talented workforce. We can do a better job of developing departmental and individual goals and then reward success. I guarantee that our strategic planning and budget process will be improved by embracing the ideas, desires, talents and vision of our best resource – the people of Flagler County.
I believe that my opponent is a free spending Republican who masquerades higher taxes in the form of “fees” and give-aways to his special interest group and big developers, such as: (1) My opponent voted to raise the storm water management fee by 46 percent; (2) permitted the 90 increase increase in permitting fees for home improvements to their home; (3) supports a two year moratorium on impact fees for developers that will shift the tax burden to existing home owners. This means you and I will have to pay this fee twice—once when we bought our homes and again in the form of higher property taxes, while the developers get a big break.
That sounds awfully similar to a no-new-taxes pledge. Are you saying that you would have opposed the county commission’s just-passed property tax increase, and would oppose increases like it in coming years? Would you have opposed the sales tax the commission just approved–a slightly different tax than the one that was already on the books, though not for taxpayers? And how does your no-new-taxes pledge square with your opposition to Amendment 4?
The County has ample revenues to operate in today’s environment and I am opposed to increasing the County’s overall revenues.
Overall property taxes have not increased. The millage rate has increased to offset declining property values. The problem is that our local residents who have homesteaded their properties have borne the brunt of the increases while rental and vacation home owners have paid less. This is a problem that needs to be fixed at the state level.
My view on the sales tax is well-documented. I would not have voted for the 20-year county sales tax because there was no plan on how the revenues would be utilized and the County circumvented the voter approval process. Remember, “No plan. No money—taxpayers do not endorse blank checks.” In contrast, I did support the school sales tax extension approved by the Board of Education because it did have concrete plans on how those revenues would be spent.
Amendment 4 is a ballot measure to re-allocate exemptions and property taxes among homesteaders, non-homesteaders and “first-time” Florida homebuyers. It is not a new tax nor is it a tax reduction, because local governments would simply adjust the millage rates to meet stated revenue needs. My reasons for opposing the measure are set forth in my response to question 7 above.
9. Has the county commission managed the taxpayer-funded Environmentally Sensitive Lands program well? Can you cite examples of good land acquisitions, and examples of not-so-good acquisitions? What is your definition of a good ESL acquisition?
I think the ESL program is a suitable model for how similar programs should be run. First, it was put to the voters for approval with a clear aim of purchasing land for preservation and public use, unlike the recent sales tax issue. Second, there has been good public input and debate about each use of the funds rather than back room deals.
I believe that a proper balance of development and the conservation of land has the potential to provide positive economic impacts as well as improving quality of life for our residents. A good acquisition is one that meets those goals and provides a positive answer to the question “will our grandchildren thank us for our foresight”. Good examples of acquisitions include:
• Princess Place,
• Haw Creek and
• Malcompra/Bings Landing.
These acquisitions meet a clear objective and, wherever possible, public access is provided quickly consistent with any needs to preserve clean water and natural habitat.
A bad acquisition is one where public money is used primarily to benefit developers such as Rayonier or others which, perhaps, is why they are financially backing my opponent.
One Acquisition in Need of Improvement:
• Bulow Creek area acquired from Ginn and the subsequent Sweetbottom land purchase, mainly because the County has been slow in developing public use.
10. Last May the Volusia County Council approved a domestic partnership registry, granting unmarried couples, including gay couples, the same benefits as married couples. That means partners can visit each other in hospitals and jails and can make funeral arrangements for each other. Would you be supportive of such a registry in Flagler County? If not, why not? If yes, would you be willing to lead the initiative from the commission?
I have been asked by Flagler Couples to look into this type of registry for our county. The Volusia Domestic Partnership Registry allows couples in a committed relationship, but are not married, to sign an affidavit allowing each partner to make medical, funeral, and property decisions for each other in the event that one partner becomes incapacitated or dies. The registry is good common sense for Flagler. For example, many older couples in our community are in loving, committed relationships, but have chosen not to marry. Most of these couples found each other after the death of a spouse and began new relationships in their golden age. They would like the peace of mind knowing that end-of-life decisions will be made with care by a compassionate partner.
While campaigning and talking to citizens, I heard mixed reviews about the County Administrator. From my dealings with him, he seems to be an intelligent, competent person who genuinely wants to be successful in his role. Because I have not worked directly with Mr. Coffey, I am not in a position to evaluate him.
As Commissioner, I will work to develop simple, measurable objectives in order to evaluate Mr. Coffey’s performance. Such objectives will be based on the County’s strategic and fiscal objectives as well as overall resident satisfaction with County Government. Doing so will help Mr. Coffey align his work with the County’s objectives and reduce the difficult political aspects of his position.
12. Evaluate the workings of the county commission: do you consider it an effective local government? Can you cite specific examples of its effectiveness—or areas of concern that you would deal with differently? Are you satisfied with the way the commission and its administration relate to the public?
The current Commission appears to be accessible to residents and able to work effectively on most matters in a non-partisan manner. They also all appear to be committed to serving the public and seem to have a congenial working relationship with each other. I do believe we could do better with commission/administration relations with the public by publishing agenda materials well in advance of the scheduled meetings. Currently, agendas are published very close to the scheduled meetings, which give the appearance of inadequate time for public, press and commission review.
I am not a politician and intend to bring a fresh and innovative perspective to the Flagler County Commission. I have a great deal of respect for the Commission and think that each Commissioner brings a unique skill set to job. Similarly, I bring a unique skill set, as a public policy anthropologist and radio show creator and host. Just as we should aim to diversify our economic foundation, we should have a diversity of skills and backgrounds on the county commission to best represent the community.
For a non-politician, that’s a quite perfectly political answer that evades the question. let’s try again: whose policies on the current commission most align with yours?
I have a great deal of respect for our Commission and the individuals who serve on it. Unlike the Commissioners, I am an independent and focus on selecting the best policies from both parties. I appreciate Alan Peterson’s financial and budget expertise, Milissa Holland’s advocacy for local control, George Hanns ‘work on Princess Place and his good relationships in the community, and Barbara Revels’ moderate and sensible leadership, especially on development and real estate matters. I refuse to succumb to a label. Labels only serve to squash our possibilities and limit our vision.
Even keeled, collaborative and determined. I do not let ego get in the way of finding good solutions and by valuing the unique perspective of all, I am able to facilitate solutions-driven discussion and action.
I refuse to compromise my core values, including my commitment to put people before politics and to act with integrity. Sometimes these values will dictate choices and votes that others will not like, especially if others are in favor of new taxes and actions that put the interests of developers before regular citizens.
This is not a line in the sand for me; it is a line in the concrete.
Initially, Meeker wrote: “I have no questions to ask my opponent unless I can get some help on who is screwing around with my signs.”
He subsequently provided one question: “You claim to be an “Independent”, yet you accept the Democratic Party’s endorsement. Can you really be considered independent accepting that endorsement while maintaining close ties with the Democratic Party? ”
Romaine addressed the matter of the signs in an email to Meeker: “I was just told what has happened to your signs. It is absolutely disrespectful and I denounce that kind of activity: It assaults my sensibilities. I empathize with your frustration and sense of violation as I, too, have been the victim of vandals; quite a few of my signs have been stolen. In a campaign, it is critically important to focus on the issues. It is my hope that people will be respectful in the future.
Romaine’s answer to Meeker’s question is as follows:
I am an independent candidate because I put People before politics. The People of Flagler County are best served when we leave partisan politics in Washington and roll up our sleeves and work together with our neighbors toward solutions that really work.
I embrace the endorsement of the Democratic Party. I believe the Republican Party should endorse me as well, just as so many individual Republicans have. Republicans are working alongside Democrats on my campaign, contributing a majority of my campaign funds and logging countless hours as volunteers.
I stand for smart government, fiscal discipline and, above all, putting the interests of People before those of big corporate developers and other special interests. These are values that we can all agree on.
After speaking with and listening to so many People of this County, I know that great ideas come from Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. I am determined to put our collective energies and ideas to work in creating a prosperous and bright future for Flagler County.