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Palm Coast Muscles Closer to $10 Million City Hall Through Financial Ploys

| June 8, 2010

Taj Mahal resized: Palm Coast City Council members took another look at an idea that won't die.

Members of the Palm Coast City Council bumped a new city hall off the list of 11 “top priorities” for the coming year at their goal-setting session two weeks ago. Two council members—Bill Lewis and Holsey Moorman didn’t even include a new city hall on their list of priorities, top or not. The council was more interested in issues that directly impact residents’ quality of life in a hurting economy, such as job creation, public safety and city infrastructure improvements.

You wouldn’t know it from Tuesday’s council meeting.

Planning for that new city hall was near the top of the agenda of the council’s workshop, as was a Formula 1-worthy timeline for starting engineering on the 40,000 square foot, $10 million building next month, finishing initial designs by year’s end, starting construction a year from October, and moving in by the end of 2012. And to hear the council on Tuesday, they were already fancying refinements to the entrance to the council chamber down to the “decorative trim” on the building and debating the finer points of parking and flat roofs.

If City Manager Jim Landon was looking for a green light to move toward that new city hall, he got it Tuesday. “We will proceed with the next steps,” he said.

Landon, the head cheerleader for a new city hall in Town Center, started the discussion by saying that he was merely responding to council members’ desire for more details about a concept, a timeline and a funding plan for a new city hall. But he left no doubt that this was one of his top priorities. “If you wait a year or two from now, the concern will be that construction costs will go up,” Landon said. It was one of a series of remarks qualifying the project less as mere proposal than as an imperative. He was ready for what Netts called “a road show”—selling the project to the community’s interest groups. He was also ready to deflect any detraction from a Town Center city hall as the only option.

“I’m going to have to see the budget before I make that commitment,” Netts said. But Landon had most of those numbers, too.

Some council members wanted to know the options at their current offices at City Walk, which happens to be in foreclosure. The current owner doesn’t want the city out of there. Nor is a bank likely to throw out the city if it takes over ownership: the city is the strip mall’s best customer, paying $20,000 a month in rent. But Landon doesn’t like the place. He literally winces when he describes the city’s offices being there. He is a big promoter of Town Center as Palm Coast’s real downtown (at least eventually) and he sees the new city hall there as an anchor to future development.

So the council discussion on the new city hall Tuesday was not about options. It was about what to build, how to build it, and when to move in, with a design that shows where the buildings would be in relation to parking, Central Park and other buildings. As Senior Planner Beau Falgout, who led the initial presentation, put it, “it’s a starting point, it’s not final plans, so think of it as things that you can add to.”

In 2005, in a vote unparalleled in the city’s history for its lopsided result, 82 percent of Palm Coast’s voters rejected a plan to build a 70,000 square-foot city hall. Mary DiStefano, a veteran of that fiasco who’s still on the council, has since adopted the usual criticism associated with that plan, which was developed by then-City Manager Dick Kelton: she calls it a “Taj Mahal.” But DiStefano had supported it. Her issue with it focused on design, not square footage or cost. And at the time the council’s offices weren’t exactly in a hovel: they occupied a 60,000 square-foot office building, which Landon and the council gave up two years ago, in exchange for some $3 million, so Palm Coast Data could move offices into it.

Netts had opposed the new city hall proposal in 2005 and felt vindicated by the vote and what had led to it. Critics of the plan had mobilized over the battle cry that the city was better served paying attention to roads, swales and stormwater issues—those issues on the council’s highest priority list this year. Netts has been much more supportive of Landon’s city hall push. “Certainly more attractive than its predecessor,” Netts said on Tuesday, in reaction to the design. (Netts was not on the council when Kelton was hired. He was when Landon was hired.)

“Are there other options out there? Sure,” Landon said. Netts interrupted him: “But this is the free option.”

Not quite: the $10 million construction cost would not be financed. Some $2 million would come out of the city’s capital funds (the fund that builds roads), $1.2 million from the utility fund (that’s where Palm Coast pay their water bill), and $1 million from the building department fund, which piled up permitting fee revenue during the boom years.

The remaining $5.8 million would be borrowed. Creatively so, but borrowed nevertheless: the city would finance the construction project with up to $5.8 million out in money from the general revenue (the portion of the budget that pays for the day-to-day running of the city). The money would be paid—or more accurately, “re-paid”—to the general revenue by the Town Center special taxing district, or CRA, as the acronym goes—Community Redevelopment Agency. A CRA collects and spends taxes in its district without sharing much of the revenue with the rest of the city or the county. It’s designed to spur re-development. While there wasn’t much development yet in Town Center, the city’s general fund “lent” the CRA $5.8 million over the past several years for land acquisition and other projects related to the CRA. The city, to build its city hall, would, in effect, call in that loan. The CRA doesn’t have all that money: it will turn around and borrow most of it from a bank. The city is betting that eventual development will repay the CRA’s loan. The end result is the same: tax money from the Town Center CRA will be obligated to the city hall.

Landon went to some lengths, as he has before, to distance the plan from its 2005 predecessor. “What voters were asked to approve is not the same as what we’re proposing now,” the city manager said. “We are not proposing that tax levy be increased to pay for this.”

But every dollar spent on a new city hall, by whatever means, and precisely because voters have not approved a special revenue source for it (such as a tax-supported bond) will still be a dollar not spent on direct services to taxpayers and residents. Comparatively, the city is in the midst of a $26 million construction project for the widening of Belle Terre north of Palm Coast Parkway, a cost almost three times that of the proposed city hall. But the artery is at the heart of the city. Residents use it by the tens of thousands every day. It facilitates their daily lives (or will, anyway, once completed). A city hall doesn’t have quite the same immediate impact on residents, especially when the city has a city hall. What it’s missing is a city hall with style, and one that accommodates its employees more comfortably. Remarkably, during Tuesday’s meeting, the issues Netts and Landon raised about the discomforts of being at City Walk related strictly to the city’s employees, and amounted to annoyances (such as thermostat issues and the bother of having to walk down two levels by way of outside stairs to go from one department to another) rather than critical deficiencies that affect resident services. Or that most residents would care about.

The council didn’t vote on the matter on Tuesday. But after an hour’s discussion on the matter, much of it a masterful production by Landon designed to lead to one conclusion, the council was where Landon wanted it. Without a vote, and without input from residents, the city set the wheels and dollars in motion to build a new city hall at Town Center.

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15 Responses for “Palm Coast Muscles Closer to $10 Million City Hall Through Financial Ploys”

  1. Jim Guines says:

    This sounds like the kind of masterful planning that produced the Government Service Building. I was there when the two excutives, one from the schools and the other from the county ” sold” the deal to a bunch of policy types. The building is there today, but both excutives are gone, but no one is sure how the building will be paid for. Fools rush in where angels ….

  2. Pierre Tristam says:

    Jim Guines is referring to County Administrator David Haas, who was fired in a late-night maneuver, and Robert Corley, the school superintendent who quit just before being fired. I remember interviewing Corley about the joint school-county government services building when he sold it as a gem of cost savings. He said the school board would have to pony up just $4 million, and the building as a whole would cost $11 million. The school board and the county commission bought in. By the time it was done, and Corley was out of there, the school board’s portion had tripled, and the entire cost had ballooned to more than $26 million, not counting additional costs for beauty tips and highlights on surrounding grounds. That’s after the Corley-Haas duo removed 9,000 square feet from their little cathedral to reduce costs. This is the same Corley on whose watch Matanzas High School construction costs went from $27 million to $51 million. The new courthouse construction’s costs was another scandal. So anyone with half a memory of recent government-building construction in Flagler has reason to be leery of low-ball promises and alleged it-must-be-done imperatives.

  3. Mike says:

    The city hall has always been a part of the Town Center plans. Everyone was so excited when they saw the plans a few years ago. Imagine, a real down town for Palm Coast. The city hall, along with the new theater will increase traffic and hopefully get construction going.

  4. Ralph Belcher says:

    I’ll support this one as a PC resident, let’s get a permanent home built once and for all and help get Town Center populated a bit further.

  5. sayitain'tso says:

    What is wrong with everyone?? Have you gotten your latest tax bill?? This county is losing residents everyday with foreclosed properties and no decent paying jobs. I don’t buy that business of our taxes being lower than the Northeast…….travel somewhere other than the Northeast and you’ll soon find out that we are being overtaxed in this county compared to other counties in FL. Now the city officials want a new city hall?? This is outrageous………

    Oh well, when your taxes exceed your income I’m sure you’ll be posting complaints before you have to leave your home (if you are able to sell) and move on.

  6. Robert Latta says:

    Not long ago someone wrote on a bulletin board forum that the deal was done and the flooring and drapers were being measured. It sounds like they had inside information.

    Some on the Town Council of this city like to spend as if the economic crisis is over. It hasn’t hit bottom yet. The most recent audit of the financial management of the city shows that it is average. That means that the management of the city is average. If Frank Meeker, who doesn’t appear to be one with a spend first attitude, Bill Lewis and Halsey Moorman join together they may be in a position to block this folly.

    It’s obvious that this effort is being driven by the Mayor, and the Town Manager is following his direction.

  7. Bill Ryan says:

    We came from a northern community about 19 years ago with very high taxes.
    They had built a “city hall” with a large clock tower. It got to be an inside joke with us
    that excessive spending was linked to a clock tower. Their tax bills became huge.

    I see the new conception has a clock tower.!

    Your website is wonderful. I regret we lack a real newspaper here to inform
    the public about goings-on. Keep up the good work, those who watch your web
    site are getting excellent journalism, and you are showing an example of what it
    should be.

  8. H Peter Stolz says:

    I’m severely disappointed in Mr. Landon. It seems he has delusions of grandeur that won’t be satisfied without an official palace being built and it appears that we are already well down the road to having a city hall. Mr. Netts seems to be of the same opinion. With tax valuations down double digits, to offer the ridiculous argument that the new city hall is free to the taxpayers indicates the level of disdain Messrs. Netts, Langdon et al have for the ability of taxpayers to understand when they are being taken to the cleaners.

    Apparently, the mayor and council and city manager feel they are entitled to better than what they have. Perhaps more private conference rooms and private bathrooms and “office suites”. Perhaps imported marble floor coverings and lace curtains – and of course art on the walls, a large atrium and lovely large plants, maybe even indoor gardens. Maybe a big pond for Mr. Netts’s boat. Maybe we could even dredge a connection to the intra-coastal. I can see it now. PC’s taj mahal will trump the potato palace – if we could paint it white – hello India.

    A few years ago the citizens of this community voted overwhelmingly to educate the then in power – we did not want taxpayer funds spent for a luxury, at a time the economy wasn’t as bad as it is now.

  9. NOT NEW says:

    Its about time that Palm Coast had a City Hall. I mean come on now we are renting store fronts for our city offices in a foreclosed strip mall. That definately sets a good example to those wo might want to invest here. And no Comerce Blvd was never meant to be a permanent home. There is so much misinformation out there from special interest groups , that it is hard to tell what is fact and what is fiction.

  10. Fred Otto says:

    what don’t they understand about the current economy and what the voter said about building a new town hall regardless of where the dollars are coming from? If there is that much money in reserve accounts there possibly there may be better places to spend it then on a new building.

  11. NOT OUT OF THE WOODS says:

    Our economy is not out of the woods yet, in fact things may very well get worse before they get better….Keep the money in the reserve accounts for the future before spending it on a new building. I tmay come in very handy in the nexxt year or two. Wait until we have a better economy to build a building that the city does not NEED now.

  12. Bob K says:

    I think we should all be thankful that we have elected leaders that are smart enough to realize they are so much smarter than the average taxpayer that they can disregard the will of the people and do what they certainly know is best for us.

  13. bill harvey says:

    i hear that the city is negative in revenue that layoffs at city hall nearing

  14. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Even to talk about building another Taj Mahal in Flagler is the height of the absurd. The county already has a 100 million dollar Taj Mahal on SR 100 and since it’s largely empty, let Palm Coast move its operation there.

    Our only hope that that next week’s election shakes the big-spenders up and re-introduces them to the real world. I know of no metaphor extreme enough to illustrate the bizarre actions of the Palm Coast Council.

  15. Mr Recall says:

    Why doesn’t the citizens of Palm Coast oust these so called representatives.

    Who are they representing.

    According to Mayor Netts this is “free money”
    Lets build it now because prices are low.

    Never mind if we can afford it or not.

    Lets go down and buy a Lexus because they are on sale, cheaper than they will ever be.
    I will worry finding a job next week.

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