Donald O’Brien, Flagler County Commission Candidate: The Live Interview
FlaglerLive | August 16, 2016
Donald O’Brien is a Republican candidate for Flagler County Commission, District 3. His opponent in the Aug. 30 Republican primary is Denise Calderwood. The winner will face Democrat incumbent George Hanns in the Nov. 8 general election.
Three seats are up on the commission in this election cycle, and a fourth seat, that of the late Frank Meeker, will be filled by governor appointment. That means that potentially, all but one seat on the commission–the one currently held by Nate McLaughlin–could turn over.
This is partisan election. That means only registered Republican voters in Flagler County, regardless of address or district, may cast a ballot in the Aug. 30 primary. The two incumbent Democrats have drawn no opponents in their primaries, so they do not appear on the primary ballot.
Flagler County Commission members serve four years. They’re paid $50,900 a year.
FlaglerLive submitted identical questions to all candidates, with the understanding that additional questions might be tailored to candidates individually and some follow-up questions may be asked, with all exchanges on the record. The Live Interview’s aim is to elicit as much candor and transparency as possible. We have asked candidates to refrain from making campaign speeches or make lists of accomplishments. We have also asked candidates to reasonably document any claim or accusation. Undocumented claims are edited out. Answers are also edited for length, redundancy, relevance and, where possible, accuracy. If a candidate does not answer a question or appears to be evading a question, that’s noted.
But it’s ultimately up to the reader to judge the quality and sincerity of a candidate’s answers.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- Critical issues
- Good and bad of county government
- EMS and fire services
- Emergency communications
- County v. Palm Coast
- Civil citations
- Economic development
- Major projects
- Craig Coffey
- Incumbency v. change
- Background check
Place and Date of Birth: Bethpage, NY November 7, 1959
Current job: Insurance Agent, Small Business Owner
Party Affiliation: Republican
Net Worth: $584,924 (See the financial disclosure)
I believe it is a combination of tangible and intangible qualifications, experiences and skills. My tangible skill set includes 35 years in the financial services sector serving in positions of increasing responsibility including as Chief Financial Officer of two community banks. For the last ten years I have been a small business owner. Additionally, I earned a B.S. degree in business administration and an M.B.A majoring in finance. I have served on many community, civic and non-profit boards; not just as a resume builder but in positions requiring responsibility and commitment. My twenty-seven years of community service, aside from providing me personal fulfillment, has afforded me the opportunity to truly learn the community, interact with community and government leaders, and experience the diversity of Flagler County. I make an effort to be informed about local issues and I am engaged with my fellow community members.
With respect to the intangibles, I possess the life experiences that will help me relate and empathize with many Flagler County residents. Dealing with sick and dying parents, settling estates, senior health care challenges, raising children, being a grandparent, success and failure in business and dealing with personal financial hardships. My wife Wendi and I have been married for thirty five years and have two adult children.
2. Tell us who you are as a person—what human qualities and shortcomings you’ll bring to the board, what your temperament is like: what would your enemies say is your best quality, and what would your friends say is your worst fault? Give is real-life examples to illustrate your answer.
Empathy, reliability, insightfulness and a love of life-long learning are some of the human qualities that I have been told that I display. My parents instilled in me the importance of being respectful of other’s opinions and feelings as well as staying humble. While I am not verbose and loud, I am reservedly passionate about things that are important to me. I am passionate about my family, my long term relationships with friends, my career, and business and my community. I get high personal satisfaction from serving others.
As a county commissioner I will seem to be reserved and introspective, I tend not to speak at meetings unless I can meaningfully contribute to the conversation. I try to listen carefully and empathetically. I am an analytical person by nature. I do my best to be informed about issues and current business and take the time to research and ask questions of affected parties. I try to be self-aware and not agenda driven.
My best quality is being responsible and determined. Anyone that knows me understands that I am goal driven to the point that I write my personal and professional goals down and carry them with me all the time. In business I have built my career on always striving to do more than my job description and seeking out greater responsibilities. I always try to “think like an owner.”
My worst quality is that, at times, I am non-confrontational and not aggressive enough. I also overcommit which causes me to put too much pressure on myself and others. This has impacted me in business when I did not meet client expectations; or if my business partners or employees were expecting me to get something done within a particular time-frame and I did not meet that expectation.
Your last observation raises the obvious question: we assume you’ll keep working at your business as a county commissioner, but won’t that over-commitment hamper your ability to be an effective full-time commissioner, given your admitted difficulties in the management of your commitments?
I have been planning and preparing to run for the County Commission since early 2015. To help make the final decision, I did a number of things: I attended the Flagler County Citizen’s academy in 2015; I counseled with my business partners, my family and friends; I attended almost every county commission meeting and workshop since early 2015 (including reading the agenda’s and back-up materials); and, I stepped up my community involvement in areas I hadn’t in the past to learn as much as possible.
In essence, I have tried to simulate the environment that I will be in as a county commissioner. I did this with the intention of making sure that I could handle the time and energy commitment that it takes to be a county commissioner and, at the same time, make sure that it wouldn’t impact my commitment to my business partners.
1. Flagler County’s relationship with the City of Palm Coast – I will discuss more in my answer to your question no. 7. Obviously, the contentious relationship cuts across and impacts many areas including budget efficiencies, public safety, joint projects, capital projects, economic development efforts and even quality of life type issues. I will make restoring a respectful and cooperative working relationship a top priority of my service as a County Commissioner.
2. Continued efforts to diversify the local economy and our ad valorem tax base away from unsustainable reliance on residential property taxes. This has been identified in the strategic plan as one of the highest priority issues since 2010 and I believe it remains so.
3. Planning for and balancing the need for many capital projects and infrastructure requirements with limited financial resources. Every budget cycle, it seems that we wait for updated property valuations to find out what the additional revenue is and then make the spending fit the projected revenue. I rarely hear about ways to be more efficient and implement cost saving measures. The process needs to be zero-based so that we start with only what is necessary expenditures and then build up to achieve strategic objectives. This needs to be the pervasive mindset across all departments. We also should have programs that recognize employees or departments for cost saving techniques and programs.
We’ve been hearing the assumption that Flagler County’s reliance on a residential tax base is “unsustainable” for what seems like an unsustainable number of decades. Yet here we are with the lowest school tax rate in memory, Palm Coast boasting about having one of the lowest tax rates in the state for cities of its size, and the county not that far behind despite modest increases to keep up with demands or make up for Great Recession backlogs. What’s so unsustainable about that? Second, just about every county commissioner candidate and actual commissioner in memory has promised jobs, but not one can take credit for more than the occasional token PR announcement of a handful of jobs the county takes credit for–numbers so small as to be irrelevant compared to the number of jobs naturally created without county involvement. What makes you different? Is there one–just one–example of cost savings you could give us to contrast with your criticism of what you claim to be insufficient cost-saving measures, even though below you recognize the county for meeting capital needs with limited resources?
Sure, we are experiencing a period of low millage rates, but I don’t think we can peg low millage rates today to a sustainable tomorrow. According to the Florida Office of Economic & Demographic Research, Flagler County’s population was estimated at 101,353 in 2015 and is projected to be about 140,000 by 2025. As of 2014, the median age in Florida was 41.3 years-old and Flagler County was well above average at 47.9 years-old. According to the 2013 US Census Bureau American Community Survey, the percentage of Flagler County’s population over the age of 65 is 25.6%, which is significantly higher than all neighboring counties (St. Johns 16.4%, Volusia 21.7%, Putnam 19.6%).
Metric after metric points to the fact that our growing population and aging demographic will only compound our challenges moving forward. I’m sure you’ve heard that residential taxpayers, on average, consume more than a dollar’s worth of services for each dollar of tax they pay, while commercial taxpayers consume less than $.50. Combine these facts and we face limited choices to maintain our current or future level of services (especially if we experience another dip in housing when our population is much bigger and more senior): raise the millage rate ever higher, cut or reduce services provided, attract way more young families and hope that our age demographic trends lower (certainly possible). Or, we can diversify our tax base so that we can sustain services without having to drastically reduce or cut them, while limiting the amount of millage rate increases necessary to keep our county an affordable place to live, work, and retire.
I agree that job creation happens naturally without direct county involvement, but economic development activities, while not the panacea, is manifold and goes beyond just simple advertising or marketing activities. Improving or maintaining our overall business climate, education system, permitting process, zoning regulation, land use guidelines, impact fees, etc. are all crucial ways of staying attractive to businesses.
Also, we can’t give up just because we haven’t hit any home runs yet. We need to stay in the game, stay disciplined, and keep at it. On the attraction side, economic development is a relationship and reputation driven business and I believe we are doing well on both accounts and should continue to do so.
One of the responsibilities of county commissioners is to plan for the future. Ignoring and not planning for the future is unacceptable, hence my focus on the challenges of diversifying our tax base and our strategic plan.
I believe the county does a good job with many things including:
- Fire and emergency services (see question#5)
- Financial disclosure and budget reporting
- Managing large projects
- Promoting tourism
- Capital projects with limited resources
I believe the county can improve upon:
- Zero based budgeting (see question#3)
- Relationship with the City of Palm Coast (see question#3)
- Communication and engagement with citizens – workshops and town hall meetings
- Strategic planning and reporting – update the plan
5. What would you change about the EMS, or ambulance, system in the county and in Palm Coast, if anything? Where do you stand on consolidation of fire services with cities, understanding that cities would be resistant: would consolidation save money? To what extent do you think turf and pride as opposed to bottom lines prevent consolidation?
I would not change anything the county is doing with respect to EMS services. Our response times exceed state and national standards. Consolidation is only an issue if the citizens of the particular city want to pursue it. I believe in home rule and, while consolidation might save money, if the citizens want to pay for a higher level of service they should have the opportunity to do so. In fact, that was a main reason why the City of Palm Coast was formed.
I am sure that “turf and pride” play a part in opposition to consolidated fire services. However, I also believe that our fire service professionals have the citizen’s best interest at heart. Why else would they put their life on the line? Politicians maybe not so much. As a county commissioner I will advocate that county and city management work together to explore all options that can deliver better service and save money, regardless of whose idea it is.
6. Explain where we are as a county with our 800 mhz emergency communications system and evaluate the county’s approach in updating the system, explaining where you see flaws or strengths in that approach. Palm Coast and the sheriff consider the county’s approach to be laggard. Do you agree?
I cannot fault the process that the county is taking with respect to replacing the 800MHz radio system.
The system is scheduled for replacement by 2020. I understand that no parts will be produced by the manufacturer after 2017 but they will still be available to purchase in the market. The maintenance contract assures parts will be available until 2021. We have annual debt payments of $841,000 until 2020. The replacement cost is projected to be $8 million to $10 million as illustrated in county budget planning documents. The County Manager has recommended that the system be fully paid for prior to incurring debt to purchase the new system. The timeline as I understand it is:
- RFP for upgrade 2017 – 2018
- Build towers (infrastructure) 2018 & 2019
- Roll-out new system in 2020
I recognize that the City (users) need answers to prepare plans and budgets to replace radio equipment and forecast other costs.
The business approach seems logical to me. I have spoken with users (firefighters & police) and some of the Sheriff candidates and the consensus was that they were generally okay with the County’s approach. One concern I have is the availability of parts after the manufacturer stops making them. I have had bad experiences with business equipment and computers, but again, I would defer to the experts in this area.
I would recommend that we:
- Put a strategic plan in place for all stakeholders.
- Solicit public input and understanding of the plan because of the impact of towers.
- Analyze the input and feedback and reconcile it with the requirements for the new system.
- Require new construction to have systems in place for signal strength.
Your answer is the most comprehensive and coherent to date in these interviews. But your very last point raises the issue of improved coverage–and with improved coverage come questions: at what point does improved coverage butt up against diminishing returns? In other words, while the county could spend more to cover some pockets that are currently not covered by the 800 mhz system, including the interiors of schools and big box stores, it could also end up spending twice as much as the current system to achieve that coverage, even though it could attain better coverage within big buildings through repeaters instead of big towers. Where do you see that line between ideal coverage and fiscal responsibility?
My point about repeaters and coverage within big buildings is to require them in the permitting process so that it gets paid for by the property owner. When it comes to ideal coverage v. fiscal responsibility we need to rely on the experts for that.
7. Palm Coast and the county have a sniping, at times competitive, at times antagonistic relationship, as if between fiefs. To what extent are the two elected bodies responsible? To what extent are the two government’s managers responsible? How will you help foster a less medieval relationship?
While engaging my fellow citizens about our local issues, I have found that the perception is that the relationship between the City of Palm Coast and Flagler County is not good. We all know that perception equals reality whether we agree or not. Citizens do not want government to waste their money and they want government to work and be efficient. Sometimes good people get caught up in turf battles and they lose site of the fact that the hero of the story always needs to be the citizens and taxpayers, not themselves.
Most citizens make no distinction between city and county jurisdictions. Most don’t care because property taxes are property taxes as far as they are concerned.
The citizens just want to know that the ambulance will be there fast and that the fire trucks will roll; they want their neighborhoods to be safe and their public facilities to be well managed and cared for.
Whenever I read about disputes or lack of cooperation, turf battles, etc… between various governments I usually take away from it that the root cause is most likely egos, personal agendas and failure to remember the mission of the organization is always to serve the citizens.
How we fix it
- Elected Official Leadership
- Assigned attendance at respective meetings
- Management interaction
Develop a plan of common or joint issues (mini strategic plan with actionable items) with input from stakeholders on both sides.
I support the civil citation program that is being developed. I applaud the efforts being made by the Public Safety Coordinating Council. I understand the desire to want to combine compassion with common sense and help reduce jail costs. I agree that law enforcement officers need the discretion to arrest or issue citations. This seems to be a dynamic rather than static issue and I expect that it will change over time as more and more municipalities and counties deal with it and best practices are developed and implemented.
9. Between March 2010 and March 2016, Flagler County residents holding jobs increased by 52 percent (or by 15,000). Only a few dozen of those jobs can be attributed to the county’s $500,000-a-year economic development department, keeping in mind that the department’s most touted job coup—the 300-job promise of Aveo Engineering at the airport—was a bust. Is that department still necessary? Can you point to substantial reasons and examples that make its expense worth the price to taxpayers?
The Department of Economic Opportunity should continue. Economic development is extremely important to our efforts to diversify the tax base. Prior to the county assuming the primary economic development role there was a void when the public/private partnership of Enterprise Flagler fell apart. The pre-recession budget for Enterprise Flagler in FY 07-08 was $598,000 and it steadily fell to $241,000 in FY 10-11. This was a result of reduced contributions by the county and the City of Palm Coast as well as private donations shrinking dramatically.
I am not opposed to seeking private contributions again.
We also need to keep in perspective that as a county run program we are relatively new. We only started this current structure in 2012. Four years is not a long time and too early to give up. Economic development is a relationship business and it takes time to develop these relationships with national site selectors.
The professional level of Ms. Van Eckert and her staff is exceptional. I have attended several presentations with national site selectors and, unquestionably, they praise Flagler County’s efforts and proposals. We are getting better at targeting specific industry segments and we are learning to create a value proposition with our proposals. The perception that we should’ve already hit a home-run is flawed. The department has made progress with recruiting some smaller companies that are continuing to grow. Companies such as Gioia Sails, and Beutlich Pharmacueticals among others. While I agree AVEO has not generated the jobs that were hoped for I do not believe they are dead in Flagler County. They may yet grow to be a substantial employer here.
10. The past four years were dominated by major capital projects: a new sheriff’s operations center, an expanded jail, the taxpayer-subsidized transformation of the old courthouse into a parochial school, and the acquisition of the Plantation bay utility. What, on your watch, will be the next batch of major projects? Rate, in order of importance, the following projects: a senior center, a new library, a west-side fire station.
I rate the west-side fire station first, the new library second and a senior center third.
Aside from the projects listed above I believe the next round of major projects will be:
- The acquisition and implementation of the new 800 MHz radio system.
- Design and implementation of a fixed route bus system
- Malacompra drainage project
- Plantation Bay wastewater treatment facility upgrade
The first two will require substantial revenue. How do you propose to meet those needs, on your watch?
The acquisition and implementation of the new 800MHz radio system will happen with a combination of borrowing, grants and current tax dollars. I don’t know of any other options. We borrowed for the current system, it is in the current budget.
I project the fixed route bus system to be a long term project. Part of that project will obviously be how to pay for it. I would be in favor of a transitional plan that moves us from the current system to one with fixed routes in incremental steps where we can figure a way to afford it within budget realities. It gets back to planning.
The County Administrator evaluation needs to be based upon key responsibility areas (KRA’s). I believe they need to be developed before the fiscal year starts and then measured at the completion of the year. The key responsibility areas need to be a combination of measurable items such as turnover, meeting project deadlines, financial performance as well as a subjective evaluation done by each commissioner. The evaluation should include a section for self-evaluation that the commissioners can respond to.
I reviewed the last evaluation that was completed in 2015. All the questions were subjective. The questions seem more fitting for a mid-level manager and not the chief executive or chief administrative officer of the county government.
I do not work with Mr. Coffey everyday so my observation is limited to the public record and my personal observation at meetings. I believe more items need to be removed from the consent agenda and be part of regular business. At times it seems that items have been rushed or not clearly discussed with commissioners before being presented at public meetings and workshops.
Your answer is a scintillating roadmap to a more effective evaluation, but it still leaves unclear what your thoughts are about Coffey, whom you’ve known, as you said, from the record and of course from nine years of his service. Based on those observations, what can you tell us about him, from your perspective?
I believe Mr. Coffey is an effective executive in that he has a vision for what he needs to accomplish and he works within the framework he is given to get it done. However, I believe it is the responsibility of the County Commission to know what the citizens want, what they can afford and then provide that counter balance to the County Administrator when necessary.
12. In this election, all three county commissioners are facing challengers. If you’re one of those challengers, and understanding there is inherent value in the experience of an incumbent and the institutional continuity, history and understanding that the incumbent represents, what are three reasons that justify removing him or her? If you are the incumbent, what are three reasons that justify keeping you beyond institutional advantages?
New perspective. I am asking citizens to vote for a different perspective from someone that has the requisite life, business, financial and leadership experience.
I will provide the citizen engagement that we are currently lacking from some of our commissioners. Very few town halls and district meetings are held with citizens. We also don’t reach out to millennials and younger citizens through social media communication channels.
Focus on the long term. The commission needs to provide leadership and update the strategic plan so that we are aligned with new technologies and the priorities of our changing citizenry.
When you say lacking engagement from “some of our commissioners,” do you include George Hanns, your potential opponent in November? How so? As far as town halls and district meetings are concerned, rare are such meetings that draw more than a handful of people: residents don’t have time, they’re not that interested, they’re not that involved, unless the issue affects them directly and unhappily. Can commissioners be blamed for residents’ lack of engagement, which, as you well know, is not unique to Flagler County but mirrored across the land (and history)? Palm Coast has an evolved social media outreach, and the county plans one too, but it’s exclusively, transparently and at times nauseatingly self-promoting PR at taxpayers’ expense. It has nothing to do with serious explanations of policy or revelations of anything that may show the government in less than a glowing light. In other words, it’s advertising. Is that what you want to further from the county?
I admire the way Commissioner McLaughlin stays connected to the community and his engagement with his constituents on a daily basis. I have attended his town halls and observed the raw and honest feedback he receives. I intend to do the same.
I will most likely closely model Commissioner Revels in so far as she seems to do a good job of balancing the multiple responsibilities of running a small business, serving the community as a commissioner and staying committed to the community organizations she values such as the hospital and the free clinic, amongst others.
14. Have you ever been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor anywhere in Flagler, Florida or the United States (other than a speeding ticket), or faced a civil action other than a divorce, but including bankruptcies? If so, please explain, including cases where charges did not lead to conviction.
Arrested – No
Most everyone in Flagler County was affected by the deep recession, some more than others. I have had two financial judgments that were a result of the recession and trying to keep our business afloat. For me, owning a small business magnified the risk. I regret that we went through that period, but I also see it as a valuable learning experience.