Meeting by phone Friday morning, the Enterprise Flagler board of directors voted to pull its “economic development” tax from the Nov. 2 ballot, aborting the troubled initiative in the face of persistent political and popular opposition. Enterprise Flagler will submit a formal request to the County Commission, which alone can affect the status of the measure on the ballot, possibly next week.
Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, a member of the Enterprise Flagler Board who was never comfortable with the measure, was not surprised by the turn-about–“not after the reaction that they appeared to get at the tea party,” he said, referring to last month’s Flagler County Tea Party group’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to a presentation of the plan. “We waited till the last minute and moved forward without sufficient data, without underlying planning,” Netts said.
It’s too late to remove the measure from the ballot, which has been printed. But to avoid the effect of what would appear, in a recorded vote, like a rejection of Enterprise Flagler itself, the public-private economic development partnership doesn’t want the vote to be counted. The county commission voted in June to add the referendum to the ballot. It can ask the supervisor of elections not to count the results, or to post signs telling voters that the measure won’t count. It’s not yet clear how the supervisor of elections will handle the issue.
And no one can tell how the mixed messages might affect the other referendum on the ballot–a school tax referendum asking voters to approve the continuation of a 25-cents-per-$1,000 levy for school operations. That measure is staying. The Enterprise Flagler tax-and-build measure would have asked voters to approve a similar levy. That money, about $2 million a year (or more, had the money been used to finance bonds), was to be spent on building industrial structures to attract new businesses into the area, or on incentives for existing and new businesses. The vagueness of the proposal, and its poor handling and messaging by Enterprise Flagler, undermined its chances from the moment it was unveiled to the Palm Coast City Council in May, and subsequently to other local governments.
Two factors ensured the measure’s demise: First, none of Flagler County’s cities endorsed the measure. Not a single elected, sitting official endorsed it. The Palm Coast City Council was particularly critical of the fact that Palm Coast could potentially not see any portion of the money even though its constituents would provide most of it. Second, Enterprise Flagler’s process was more veiled than transparent, sowing mistrust among potential voters and opening the way for criticism that distracted from the issue itself–as well as alternatives.
County and Palm Coast administrations have been working on an alternative plan–a half-cent sales tax increase that the County Commission would approve, by vote rather than by referendum. The measure would have to have a 4-vote majority. The money would be more proportionately distributed among the cities and the county. But by not being approved by popular referendum, it could not be used to finance bonds, so dollar amounts would be limited to the net sales tax proceeds. That proposal might come before the commission later this year or early next year if commissioners appear inclined to approve it. That’s a big if.
“The thought of having a dedicated funding source for this purpose appeals to me,” County Commissioner Milissa Holland said. “We’re already doing it, we have the money set aside, but that’s on a year-to-year basis. The devil is going to be in the details.” Holland wants the commission and the county’s inter-governmental panel (which meets quarterly) to debate the matter openly and have a strategic plan in place laying out objectives the public can relate to and understand before moving forward with a sales tax increase. None of those discussions have taken place. Holland, too, was not surprised by Enterprise Flagler’s reversal.
Commissioner Barbara Revels, who also serves on the Enterprise Flagler board and was a supporter of the ballot measure, was upset by the shift–not merely the removal of the measure from the ballot, but the shifting of the tax discussion and make-up to the county commission. “I just resent the fact that everybody thinks it is that easy to have the county commission vote on a half-penny sales tax,” Revels said. Would she vote for it? Revels said she wasn’t ready to answer. “I want to see what the voters do on the school tax. I want to hear from people, I want to hear from constituents about how they feel about raising their taxes.” But she was categorical about one approach: “I would be absolutely in favor of it if it goes to a referendum.”
A sales tax referendum is also an option, if that’s the route the county commission chooses.
Either way, Netts said, “I can’t imagine the county commission proceeding with a sales tax without a show of support from the cities.” Like Holland, Netts said, “a lot of that depends on the details.”