Jane Mealy, who chairs the Flagler Beach City Commission, was startled by what county commissioners and the county administrator were saying today about the city and the county’s plans for restoring beaches after Hurricane Matthew. She was hearing the county swipe money from under Flagler Beach, as if in retaliation.
The city had told the county that Flagler Beach would want to control its fate and repairs. The county is not happy with the city’s approach, preferring to be the coordinator of all repairs. But it’s conceding that it can’t stand in Flagler Beach’s way, if that’s what Flagler Beach wants to do.
But the county can make it difficult for the city. And today, it looked as if it were doing just that, though from the county’s perspective it was merely hurrying to ensure that it got the state dollars it needs.
By the end of the meeting, Mealy was just angry.
The commission had just voted unanimously to approve County Administrator Craig Coffey’s plan to negotiate with the state environmental agency for a $5.35 million grant. The vote seemed anything but controversial. They money would help rebuild dunes, though only north of Flagler Beach. And securing that state money hinges on Flagler County matching it by $4.65 million. To do that, the commission also approved taking $1.5 million out of a fund devoted to beach restoration. That $1.5 million had been accumulating over several years, at the rate of $250,000 a year. It’s all there was in the fund. The appropriation will wipe it out.
It’s not even “county” money, even though Coffey today spoke as if it were. The whole county and its cities pay into the fund, not just county residents: it’s generated by the bed tax, the countywide surtax on short-term rentals, hotels and motels. Flagler Beach was banking on some of that money to help pay for its own beach repairs.
“We could rely on that for matches we’re going to have to come up with,” Mealy said, “and for fixing crossovers, and for the pier, and for all the other things they’re going to have to do related to the beach, and it seems to me that if we’re the playground of Flagler, as everybody keeps calling us, that people are coming here for a reason.”
Mealy asked commissioners and Coffey directly if any of the eventual $10 million that would be secured, between the state and the local match, will help Flagler Beach’s repairs. No, Coffey told her. “It’s all north of Flagler Beach.”
He told her that the county is still working with a different state agency, the Department of Transportation, to secure $12 million, along with money from the U.S. Corps of Engineers, that would help the city. But there was no certainty in any of it, and what Coffey had told commissioners about half an hour earlier made it very clear that local matching money was all but spoken for, leaving Flagler Beach hanging.
County describes harsher reality if Flagler Beach goes it alone.
“Even if you got into a 50-50 match,” Coffey told commissioners about the match they were about to approve, “you’ve got a problem, because if we come up with this initial match, I’m done, I don’t have any more money short of you guys doing some massive increase of some kind to fund beach projects.”
In other words, even if the county commission raised the bed tax by a penny, as it is expected to do in a month or two, the money won’t generate more than $500,000 a year (though commissioners could choose to increase that amount by holding the current line on marketing costs, which also come out of tourism dollars. But Coffey doesn’t want to do that.)
That’s not all that startled Mealy, who was one of three Flagler Beach city commissioners and the city’s manager, Larry Newsom, attending the county meeting this morning. “I thought Craig said some pretty strong things, so did Nate,” Mealy said, referring to County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin.
McLaughlin had called Mealy over the weekend, as he’d called Flagler Beach City Commissioners Marshal Shupe and Kim Carney, to speak about the beach issue. McLaughlin was adamant that he’d called just to get the commissioners’ perspective, not to pressure them.
Mealy flatly disagreed. McLaughlin’s call, she said in an interview, was “telling us that the city is wrong in wanting to take over the projects on the beach. Basically he was saying we won’t be able to do it without them. I wasn’t happy about the phone call.” Asked specifically if McLaughlin had not been merely soliciting her opinion, she replied: “No, he was telling me we were wrong.”
“I didn’t like the way he handled it, I really didn’t,” Mealy continued. “I thought he was trying to change my mind and I didn’t think that was his role to do that. We didn’t really have a discussion about pros and cons.”
During today’s meeting, McLaughlin was putting it slightly differently. “The commissioners I’ve spoken with have expressed the feeling that they didn’t have a seat at the table, that they weren’t being heard, and that it’s their city,” he said, “and one commissioner said, we own the beach. I’m OK with that, I don’t want to get into a push-pull with a municipality. They can do what they want to do, we don’t govern there.” To the county manager, he added: “If they want to do the project, Mr. Coffey, it’s their city.”
Coffey was clearly irritated by Flagler Beach’s approach: “If they’re going to make all the decisions I’d rather them have all the work tool, because I don’t want to get to the 11th hour and say, we don’t like that sand, spend three more years to get more sand,” Coffey said. “They have complete autonomy over the beaches now. We don’t get in their business about burning on the beach, we don’t get in their business about boardwalk, or pier or anything like that.”
Then he flat-out warned: “And the pier, we’ve funded those things, crosswalks and pier and everything else. Those are all issues that we may need to rethink, because we tried to help them over and over again. But if they want to jump into it, I’d say, you get the baby and the bathwater.”
But the county hasn’t funded the pier and other such projects: the county’s tourism dollars have funded those (and county officials, Coffey among them, go out of their way to separate tourism dollars, which are generated mostly by visitors, from the county’s property tax dollars generated from local residents and businesses.) The county happens to administer those dollars, with a council that includes Flagler Beach’s and Palm Coast mayors recommending where the money is spent. The county commission has final say. Coffey’s statement only reinforces Flagler Beach’s sense that the county is running roughshod over cities because it can.
“It sounded like one great big scare tactic today,” Mealy said, “which only got me angry, that didn’t work.”
City Commissioner Marshall Shupe echoed Mealy’s plan to put the city first. “We as a city own a large percentage of the dune structure,” he said, along with 52 walk-overs. “We have to protect our interest first, our residents first, taxpayers next. We’re all supposed to be sitting at the same table with the same objectives,” regardless of the agencies involved, he said.
All those issues were supposed to have been worked out when the county and the city met in a joint workshop just three weeks ago. They were not, leaving Donald O’Brien, one of the county commissioners, to complain today: “Why are we guessing at things, why don’t we not know right now what the city’s position is?” he asked the county administrator.
Two of his colleagues, however—Dave Sullivan and Greg Hansen, who’d been sworn in as a commissioner an hour earlier—were not keep on relinquishing administrative control, though Hansen was willing to grant the city “autonomy.”
“Unless we’re coordinated, word gets out that we’re in any way not coordinated, I think you could jeopardize getting some of the money,” Sullivan said. “Like it or not, our staff, the county commissioner staff, will be involved in this one way or another just because of getting the work done, and some of the details involved. So I don’t have a big problem with Flagler Beach being in charge, but the county is going to be involved in one way or another, and if we’re not, I think it could create problems in the overall attempt to fix all the Matthew damage.”
Coffey wanted clearer protection. “From a staff standpoint I just don’t want to take all the blame if it goes south, if we hand-off the project,” he said.
“It sounds like we’re drawing a line in the sand here,” Commissioner Charlie Ericksen said, apologizing for the pun. “Are you saying we’re going to free them up to do financing for what they want to do on the beach, and if it’s more, are they going to come back to the county for more money?”
No one intimated that there would be money in such a scenario. But there are relationships with state agencies, and state agencies’ expectations—as Al Hadeed, the county attorney, explained—that their grants are handled by local governments that can handle them efficiently, and that have the sort of manpower, down to road departments, engineers and other know-how, to manage it all.
“There’s more to it than simply saying I’m in charge,” Coffey said.
“We need to be part of the decision-making process, and we haven’t been,” she continued. “Even though they invited us to the workshop it looked like everything had been pretty much decided already, to us, and we said we want to do it on our own. We believe we can.”
As soon as the meeting ended Coffey and McLaughlin started driving toward Tallahassee for an afternoon meeting with officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection, ostensibly to attempt to lower the required match from a 50-50 ratio to a 75-25 ratio, thus potential halving Flagler’s financial match. (The dune-rebuilding could start as soon as March 1, Coffey said, with sand hauled in by truck, assuming funding is secured.)
Newsom, the Flagler Beach city manager, and City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur also started driving north, to meet with state transportation department officials. But they turned around when they heard that the the transportation department had, in fact, appropriated $12 million for dune replacement and management, with that money now in the department’s district officials’ hands. Asked to confirm, Steve Olsen, a transportation department spokesperson, answered with a form letter.