“You know,” the character played by William Holden says at one point in “The Towering Inferno,” the kitschy all-star movie of 1974, “there’s nothing that any of us can do to bring back the dead.”
Nobody sitting around the table at the latest Enterprise Flagler meeting on Thursday used the line, at least not in so many words. Nobody needed to. The discussion about Flagler County’s towering inferno—the tax-and-build initiative that still bears Enterprise Flagler’s name, and that will appear on the November 2 ballot—was a reflection of the state of the initiative itself: confusing, aimless, disjointed, dying. There’s nothing any of the people sitting around the table (local government or private industry representatives) could do to bring back the dying thing, especially as some of them had provided the fuel to burn it.
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It is the so-called “economic development” tax the local chamber of commerce and Enterprise Flagler are pushing: a $0.25-per-$1,000 property tax that would raise about $2 million a year and would be spent on building industrial and commercial buildings to attract companies big enough to fill them, and supposedly provide jobs. The proposal was flammable the moment it made its debut as a vague but hopeful idea before the Palm Coast City Council last May. By the time the actual proposal was unveiled as a slightly less vague outline and website last month, it was already mostly cinders, politically anyway, as none of the county’s governments—not even a single one of its elected representatives—proved willing to support it publicly.
The best Enterprise Flagler got by way of an endorsement from an elected official was that of Nate McLaughlin, the county commissioner-elect, who happens to be jobless and the product of two bankruptcies. Palm Coast’s elected officials haven’t been willing to support it because the tax revenue clearly would be controlled by the county, with little to no guarantee that Palm Coast would see a dime.
Still, the initiative’s diehard champions (the attorney Mike Chiumento III and Prosperity Bank’s Garry Lubi) will attempt to give the initiative some CPR one more time—and let the Flagler County Tea Party Group decide its fate.
At the tea party group’s next meeting at 6 p.m. at the Flagler Palm Coast High School Bulldog Café (it’s open to the public), 35 minutes will be devoted to the tax-and-build initiative. Representatives from Enterprise Flagler will make their case in 15 minutes. They’ll be followed by the tea party’s Vince Ligouri, who’ll speak against it. (Ligouri has been claiming that he only speaks for himself, not for the tea party, but that’s like Derek Jeter claiming he doesn’t represent the Yankees when he endorses a product: it may be technically true, but not essentially so.) Ligouri is more supportive of a half-cent sales tax increase to do the same thing the tax-and-build plan would do, but with twice the revenue, so that it can be split between Palm Coast and the county (and be more politically palatable to both).
After the two presentations, each side will have two minutes for rebuttals, then they’ll take questions.
Then comes the key part: The tea party group will hold a straw ballot on the initiative, and will announce the results by the end of the meeting. “I think that’ll be helpful to both sides,” says Tom Lawrence, who chairs the group. Based on previous tea party meetings, expect upwards of 200 people to participate.
That’s not where it’ll end for the tax-and-build initiative. Thursday’s discussion around the Enterprise Flagler table meandered, but that’s because the tax’s advocates are looking for a face-saving way to get out from the fire. By holding a vote at the tea party gathering—a vote likely to spell the initiative’s defeat—the initiative’s advocates will have data to go on to make their next move. If the defeat in the straw poll is severe, they’ll go to the County Commission and ask for the initiative to be pulled from the ballot. That’s no longer possible, of course: the ballots are being printed. But they’ll ask for the vote not to be counted. Or for the vote not to count as such.
If that sounds confusing, and obtuse, and embarrassing for the political process, it’s because it is—as the handling of the initiative has been almost from the start (which explains its bedraggled fate). One of Enterprise Flagler’s alternative plans will be to then float the initiative again as a half-penny sales tax increase in a special election sometime next spring.
Enterprise Flagler is in a desperate mode to find a way out of the initiative as a way to salvage its future plans, but the damage, however, has already been done in voters’ mind regardless of the outcome. Just as Palm Coast’s ill-fated referendum on a city hall tax initiative failed in 2003 (a tax initiative Tom Lawrence, not so incidentally, championed), severely damaging subsequent attempts to build a city hall without incurring residents’ wrath, so too will the tax-and-build initiative severely damage subsequent attempts to float economic development initiatives—whether those initiatives are floated by Palm Coast or by the county.
Going to the tea party group and essentially handing it the reins of the initiative’s fate raises other tactically suspect issues: by putting the initiative to a straw-ballot’s test at the tea party, Enterprise Flagler—ostensibly a collection of government representatives, not just private business—is emboldening the tea party group’s litmus-testing of public policy.
That’s fine with Lawrence: “I’m pleased that we represent broad swaths of this community, and I mean broad swaths in terms of numbers of people and parties,” he said, “so I’m glad that the powers that be are listening to us, because you look at our values, what we’re trying to do is instill our values into all the candidates.” But it isn’t likely to sit well with a majority of voters that does not identify with the comparatively rigid orthodoxy of tea party doctrine. (Lawrence concedes that “what we’re missing obviously are the younger portion of the community, and one of our wishes is that we can get more of the young voters to come to our meetings.”)
Tactical errors have bedeviled the tax-and-build initiative from its beginnings. Getting out from the fire with the tea party’s blessing is only the latest. When it comes to Enterprise Flagler, the most applicable line from “Towering Inferno” is the one Paul Newman’s character speaks so well to Holden’s: “Don’t you think you’re suffering from an edifice complex?”