Unearned Audacity: On Economic Development, Flagler Tells Voters to Drop Dead
FlaglerLive | October 27, 2013
Florida’s enthusiasm for disenfranchising voters is an authoritarian’s theme park. The state is dallying in an on-again-off-again hate affair with early voting. It regularly conjures up fantastic tales of voter fraud that never happened. It treats ex-felons like ex-citizens forever robbed of their voting rights. And outdoing even bogus democracies like Iraq, it treats voter registration organizers like enemies of state, regulating them more rigorously than guns. So it’s natural that the Legislature is always on the hunt for new ways to treat the ballot box with less respect than for chamber pots.
You wouldn’t think our own Flagler County Commission would be giving the Legislature new ideas on how to behave like a banana republic. But it has. The commission approved a list of seven legislative priorities this year. One of them is a direct affront to voters, and a yet another example of how clumsy and contemptuous of public input the county can be when it comes to economic development. And how tone-deaf.
State law allows county and city governments to give companies tax breaks to encourage economic development. For those tax breaks to be in place, the law requires that county and city voters approve the allowance once every 10 years. Consider that again: only once every 10 years, voters get to have a say in their local governments’ authority to use their tax dollars to subsidize private companies’ operations. It so happens that 63 percent of Palm Coast voters and 60 percent of county voters approved just such a referendum almost nine years ago. The vote is due again in 2014 if the subsidies are to go on.
Now the county wants to take that right away from voters. The county commission would replace voters’ say with a supermajority vote of the county commission. Yes, the kind of supermajority vote that last year gave us that sales surtax that the county knew would never pass muster at the ballot box, thanks to the commission’s lousy selling job. The surtax that will pay for a new jail the county doesn’t need (the usual scare tactics aside), and that will pay for that boondoggle of a hospital in Bunnell that the county wants to reconstruct as a sheriff’s headquarters and whatever else its illusions of grandeur fancy. That surtax.
Voters have no direct say in economic development except through that decennial referendum. But the county is getting so greedy with public dollars, and so presumptuous of its authority, that it thinks it’s time to shove voters aside and let the five county commissioners—or the nine-member economic development council—make decisions for them. County Administrator Craig Coffey went so far as calling voter involvement in this “a mistake” before using his trademark sophistry to make it seem as if voter involvement was actually a costly inconvenience to voters, or that the county somehow is handcuffed when it must ask voters permission to use taxpayer dollars once every ten years.
The question is: why is Flagler County so scared of voter involvement, given overwhelming support the last time around? It’s a simple answer, really. Since then, the county’s involvement in economic development has been more reckless than responsible. The convenient narrative is that it couldn’t control the Great Recession’s housing bust. Rubbish. There’s a reason Flagler County became the poster child of depression after 2006, with the state’s highest unemployment clobbering us until now. City and county governments turned into the drunken sailors of development, abetting rather than tempering a growth craze they knew would crash, since it was unsustainable. But our elected representatives’ foresight was every developer’s hostage. Permits, variances, waivers and amendments to planning regulations flew unimpeded. Flagler overbuilt, and it finally crashed deeper than most places in America. You’ve been paying the price.
Government’s direct involvement in economic development, never a good idea, was worse. The bad old days of Enterprise Flagler, that private-public partnership between companies and local governments, are over. But we should recall that group’s attempts at passing its own ill-fated property tax increase in 2010—so ill-fated that the proposal made it to a printed ballot that year, but wasn’t counted. At least Enterprise Flagler was still willing to take its issue to voters.
Not so the commission. Its own sorry record at the Flagler County Airport is a cautionary trail of shame. One gift after another to private companies ended in failure and left taxpayers holding the bag. That pitiful, hurried deal with the charter school that skipped town in January is only the latest embarrassment. Palm Coast didn’t do much better with its promises-to-nowhere deal with Palm Coast Data, though at least taxpayers didn’t lose a cent on that one, other than what would have been a fine building for city hall. (Palm Coast, incidentally, isn’t being as thick as the county on this one: it has no plan to forego voters’ involvement. But nor has Palm Coast been as quick on the draw with promises of tax subsidies since being burned by Palm Coast Data.)
Things are improving in the county, thanks mostly to a mending economy, and thanks to the arrival of Helga van Eckert, the county’s economic development director. She’s racked up several big wins, one of them at the airport. But you can’t blame voters for being skeptical.
Nor should you further disrespect them by looting their right to the ballot box, let alone faking the loot as a favor. The truth is that Flagler County government doesn’t want you to have a voice at the ballot because its trust in itself is shakier than its trust in voters. The county knows its record doesn’t compel rewards. Just as it couldn’t pass a sales tax referendum last year, it would have a tough time convincing voters that it can be trusted with economic development.
Its solution—disenfranchise voters—proves its mendacity.
But if county government thinks it’s doing a good job on economic development with taxpayer dollars, it should have no problem winning voters’ endorsement, due in 2014. Make a case for recent wins. Make us believe they’ll stick. Convince us that you’re worth trusting with half a million dollars a year on top of tax breaks for companies. Not to mention convincing prospective companies that you’re the sort of government that trusts its voters, and is therefore worth trusting in turn. But silencing voters—and crying all the way to legislative mommas—shouldn’t be an option.
Unless this county commission is sending a message that won’t be lost on potential companies: screw voters and let’s go back to bad business as usual.