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Balking at Proposed Tax Increase, County Commissioners Offer Alternatives Outside of Public Meeting

| June 26, 2018

Flagler County commisioners are offering up their budget suggestions to the county administrator outside of public meetings. (© FlaglerLive)

Flagler County commisioners are offering up their budget suggestions to the county administrator outside of public meetings. (© FlaglerLive)

County Administrator Craig Coffey is proposing to the County Commission to increase the property tax rate next year to raise an additional $2.12 million to pay for a range of additional services, raises, new positions, including more cops and firefighters, and other needs he said have lagged in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

But commissioners aren’t enthusiastic.

The tax would increase 25 cents per $1,000 in taxable value, and would end up well above the rolled-back rate–or the rate the county would have to adopt if it were to take in the same revenue next year as it did this year. The new tax rate, not including additional taxes for environmental preservation, would be $8.3667 per $1,000 in taxable value. The tax bill for a $200,000 house with a $50,000 homestead exemption would be $1,255.

By the county’s calculation, the increase would equate to a $137 on a $200,000 house with a $50,000 homestead exemption, or $78 on a house at the county average of $154,271 in valuation (with a $50,000 exemption). In fact, the increase would be slightly more, as the county’s calculation does not include the appreciation in property values from year to year, which increase what property owners must pay in taxes (up to a ceiling of 3 percent in appreciated value). The county overall has seen values appreciate by about 7.5 percent.

But a majority of county commissioners don’t want that sort of increase, including Don O’Brien, Dave Sullivan and Greg Hansen. “I have a really bad feeling about the $2.1 million,” Hansen, who is up for election in the Republican primary in August, said. “I think we’ve got to get that smaller, real small. I don’t have the stomach to increase the millage rate .25.”  But Hansen, like his colleagues, proposed no alternative, sounding more like perennial anti-tax diehards who nevertheless demand that government maintains its services.

Only O’Brien said that aside from cost-of-living pay increases for employees, “everything else is on the table.”

Coffey got frustrated, impressing on commissioners that philosophical opposition to a rate increase is one thing, but he needed specifics to work with. “We’re in silly season, I get that, I’m not doing this lightly to you,” Coffey then said, referring to the election season with startling candor that got something of a rebuke from Commissioner Nate McLaughlin.

“I’m not going to make any decision based on silly season,” McLaughlin told him, saying criticism would be forthcoming either way.

“It’s not silly to me,” Sullivan said.

“I’m saying silly because it’s election season. People will make hay no matter what you do,” Coffey said. “It wasn’t meaning we don’t take this serious. This is definitely serious.”

The proposed tax increase is the net result of a half-dozen budget workshops commissioners have held since May, reviewing budget requests from the sheriff, the clerk of court, the supervisor of elections, the tax collector and the property appraiser, all of whose budgets are ultimately approved by the commission, as well as county government’s own demands. The sheriff alone had requested an increase of nearly $3 million, while the county was looking at an even bigger increase.

In all, next year’s combined county government budgets added up to an expansion of nearly $7 million. Property values’ appreciation are to bring in about $4.5 to $4.75 million in additional revenue, leaving county coffers short almost $2.7 million.

“Your budget that you have before you and all the departments that you reviewed accomplished a lot of your strategic goals,” Coffey said. “Some of your strategic goals, there’s a price to that for your additional resiliency, talk about hardening facilities, economic growth, retention of employees. Some stuff is mandated, but a lot of stuff is stuff that if you want to keep up with law enforcement, if you want to keep up with public safety, non public-safety stuff, keep up with growth, and quality of life–what we put together in a budget today will cost you a quarter more per thousand.”

That’s without additional contributions to social service agencies commissioners have been interested in helping more next year, though the modest increase they’re proposing for that line item would not make a significant difference in the bottom line.

The alternative, Coffey insisted, is for commissioners to give him specific direction as to what to cut–soon. He heard no such specific direction at Monday’s workshop even though it was the board’s sixth such budget since May. Commissioners instead went into tangents about population increases, the housing industry, new demands for services, increasing demand for gas stations, and so on.

Then they decided to make their proposals behind closed doors, directly to Coffey, in emails or in conversations, between now and the commission’s next workshop on July 2.  “We’re not giving him direction, we’re giving him suggestions,” Hansen said.

“And if you give me stuff I can at least advise  you on whether we can really do that,” Coffey said, embracing what would end up being critical back-and-forth discussions on the budget between him and commissioners, even though individually, outside of a public meeting.

“I encourage you individually to have that dialogue with Craig, let’s have that dialogue, we all do anyway, let’s just keep it up and come up with a solution here,” Hansen said.

McLaughlin said any outcomes of those communications would be discussed at the next workshop. 

Workshop discussions are intended to give those affected by budget decisions a chance to see or hear the commission’s and administration’s process, and to address it if need be as it unfolds. Generally few people do so, but at times–as was the case at a previous workshop, when a contingent of firefighters showed up to support that department’s requested budget increase–seats fill up. By holding what amounts to key conversations or communications about cutting the budget outside of a workshop setting, the commission is now blunting that transparency and preventing those affected from participating until the re-worked proposal has taken shape, based on communications behind closed doors. It isn’t illegal, as long as commissioners don’t communicate between themselves and as long as the administration doesn’t become a conduit of their individual communications. But the method is clearly a violation of sunshine–resulting not at Coffey’s urging, to be sure, but from Commissioners’ inability or unwillingness on Monday to take on those issues openly at that time. 

Coffey must deliver a budget to the commission by July 16. “I need to get any final guidance, preferably today, but if not by the 2nd,” Coffey said Monday.  By August 3 or 4, the county must announce the maximum property tax it will levy next year. It can then adopt a lower tax at its September public hearings, but it may not adopt a tax rate higher than the one announced in August.

County government alone is facing a $3.1 million budget increase, driven by an increase in required contributions to the Florida Retirement System ($714,000), increases in the costs of the county’s emergency communications system, on which all local governments rely ($436,000), new positions ($670,000), raises ($250,000), and so on.

Coffey asked the sheriff to eliminate $400,000 from his proposed increase to get it down to $2.5 million. He said the county increased the sheriff’s budget last year by over $2 million, “and the school board is giving him more money and Palm Coast is giving him more money, so you’ve had about a $6 million increase in two years in that budget, so I think what I’ve requested is reasonable. We’re trying to work through that right now.” Coffey is also asking the Supervisor of Elections and the Clerk of Court to trim their budgets some. Those final numbers aren’t in.

The closest to specifics commissioners got was the possibility of eliminating a five-person construction crew, which would save a considerable amount of money. They said they could possibly contract out the work, though Coffey said contracting would double costs, not reduce them. “The projects I’m showing you, it’s cheaper to do it in-house,” Coffey said.

The key on the additional crews, Commissioner Dave Sullivan said, is that once the work load drops out and the employees are not as necessary, it becomes much harder for the county to get rid of them. “We do have attrition, we do have employee turnover,” Coffey said to ease commissioners’ concerns.

What specific proposals commissioners appeared to agree on was a $50,000 increase in contributions to social service agencies.

Commissioners for the first time in years had a chance to hear directly from the outside non-profit agencies it helps fund. The county currently helps fund seven such agencies for a combined $425,500. Those include the Children’s Home Society, the Boys and Girls Club at Rymfire Elementary, Stewart Marchman Behavioral Health, the Early learning Coalition, the Family Life Center, the Flagler Free Clinic, and $25,000 for the school board to defray costs associated with the Carver Center in Bunnell. Stewart Marchman accounts for $173,300 of the total.

“Most of these funding levels have been relatively flat for almost 10 years with the exception of the free clinic,” Coffey said. “These are kind of a safety net things that only Flagler County provides, that none of the jurisdictions fund social services, only the county does that,” by which Coffey meant that city governments, for example, don’t contribute funding. “A lot of these are not mandated, but they’re things that you want to do or if you don’t do, you’ll probably realize financial impacts in other places, whether that’s judicial, law enforcement, court system etc.”

Representatives from each agency provided brief overviews of the services they provide and how county contributions help their budget. The county’s $55,000 for the Free Clinic, for example, “has really had a huge impact” on the clinic’s expansion and its ability to enable some 2,500 medical and dental visits a year, Terri Belletto, the clinic’s only full-time employee, said. The clinic has six part-timers and numerous volunteers, including physicians and nurses.

“What I’d like to suggest is we add five grand to this line,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan said.

“We’ll have to roll it all up in millage discussion and where we stand,” Coffey said.

Joe Sullivan of the Boys and Girls Club described the after-school program, at Rymfire Elementary since 2011 but in Flagler since 1998. Three participants spoke of their experience, one of them describing the club as a safe place to go after school rather than going home and being alone. None of the presenters asked for more money, with one exception.

The customarily blunt Trish Giaccone, director of the Family Life Center, the shelter for victims of physical and sexual abuse, put it this way: “Thanks for the money but yes, I am asking for more.” She said the agency’s water and sewer bills are up 88 percent in the past five years, gas bills are up 450 percent, electricity up 20 percent. The center serves 300 individuals a year in its 2,800 square foot, 32-bed shelter. The county’s $40,000 a year contribution hasn’t changed since 2006, other than an additional $15,000 for sexual assault nursing services. But that money is restricted.

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27 Responses for “Balking at Proposed Tax Increase, County Commissioners Offer Alternatives Outside of Public Meeting”

  1. Anonymous says:

    You wanna raise tax rates. But you rehire the assistant couny manager at a higher salary. You are paying a christian based company as a head hunter. What happened to seperation of church and state. You are paying that company 90k.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Quit pulling scheninigans like rehiring Sally Sherman at higher rates of pay and paying an agency to keep her employed, giving Coffey and Hadeed unreasonable salaries for conducting business for about 15 percent of the county, get rid of useless Joe Mayer and Julie Murphy. Stop paying outside engineers when the county has several on the payroll-one at about $140k annually. Make the SOE operate within the budget that worked for the former SOE which was lower than any comparable county. The current SOE already raised her budget iver $100k last year and has shown NO actual of expenditures to come against what she’s requesting. The county administrator should be asking for this type of information without being told to do so from all offices requesting funds. There are a lot of questions this commissions should be asking. There is no valid reason for a tax increase. Property values have been in the rise for the past couple years so the board has been getting more all along. It’s time each office tighten their belts and stop their silly spending! Why does the BOCC need monogrammed shirts at our expense? Why do county officials have to have smart phones when their are Verizon government contracts that can reduce cell phone bills? Why is travel and training expenses going out the roof when training has been the same practices for quite a few years? Why is the SOE paying big time salaries to inexperienced staff without putting in the years of service and working up the ladder and earning their pay? Why is she budgeting for more poll workers than she is actually hiring? Why the outrageous budget amount for training when the former SOE didn’t possess the experience Lenhart has and got by on a fraction of what Lenhart is asking for. Why are school officers not working in shifts to prevent paying benefits and full time employment. There has to be a better way. Why can’t retired or military be resource officers? The Sheriff needs to stop with all the BS advertising, car wraps, and self promoting ads. We don’t need our tax dollars to be spend to tell us to lock our cars. Officers don’t need to be driving patrol cars home and put miles on our patrol cars and we pay the gas. Get rid of slimy Dunn, stop the BS spending at and on the airport. There are lots of areas to cut to prevent raising taxes. Did silly Craig Coffey factor in monies that are to be paid out to those who have been sickened by his and the BOCC’s 8 million dollar investment that we the people who pay such silly spending told you all not to buy? Time Silly McLaughlin and silly Greg Hansen get booted and someone responsible like Joe Mullen and Dennis McDonald step up to the plate. Hansen and McLaughlin had their chance at leadership and they failed. They let their silly employee Craig Coffey lead them around by the nose and make folks out of them. Shame on you Hansen and McLaughlin. We can no longer afford you two!!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Why doesn’t Flagler County hire an administrator who deals in programs and services and their associated costs and viable alternatives rather than “stuff”? Coffey sounds like a teenager rather than the county executive — must be the silly season effect.

  4. mark101 says:

    I wonder how much of an increase Coffey has in this for himself and his buds.

  5. Flagler native says:

    Sure, you can raise taxes if you fire the former assistant county manager that got hired back with a pay raise. Also current county manager should take a pay cut by 5 %. Fair deal?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Does anyone know if Flagler County is a certified local government ? If not then every year that passes it is missing out on revenue.

    St. Johns County / St. Augustine is as are many many other areas within Florida.

  7. A Dedicated American says:

    Coffey you have to go. Are you kidding me, tax increases. Do you all realize when Palm Coast became a city, Flagler county lost seventy five percent of their tax structure to Palm Coast. And you are wondering why you
    have a deficit. Coffey’s increase in his salary this year with all his perks 179,000. Per year. The county attorney Al Hadeeds salary of over 200,000. plus all his perks and he has an assistant and another one working with him, another two unnecessary salary. These salaries have to be rolled back and our commissioners need to put a stop to all of Coffeys horrific spending. Do you all realize that Flagler County is collecting 500,00 per month rent at Bings Landing thanks to Coffey and commissioner Nate McLaughlin, That place is a gold mine, the rent should be at least 2,500.00 per month. The tax payers are taking it up the you know what on that. Commissioners and Coffey you want to find money start there and Fire Sally Sherman Coffey you do not need an assistant! Coffey and commissioners you should be ashamed of yourselves as to what you are and have been doing to the TAX PAYERS OF this county. Hansen and McLaughlin I hope you are packing your bags.

  8. 107 says:

    Hey commissioner’s—-you wouldn’t be in this position if you weren’t so stupid to let your employee Craig Coffey to lead you around by the nose since 2007. I see light at the end of the tunnel, I see a clif and all of you being drug off by Craig Coffey. We the people have had enough. We have paid for pay raises out the butt for Coffey and Hadeed, we are sick of renewing their contracts early and for you commissioners providing them golden parachutes, we are literally sick from the $8 million Sheriff Operations Center that Coffey led you into buying and renovating. We are sick of slimy deals like that of Sally Sherman and Craig Coffey that costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars. We are ready for some new responsible leadership. The only direction we will go by voting for silly politicians as youselves is more of the same old. It’s is time for a change—-time for Nate McLaughlin and Greg Hansen to pack their bags and get out of here!! There is no excuse why there are not reserved from the past few years when the tax rate has been high and property values have steadily been going up! Get rid of your wasteful spending, employees being oaid as much or more than constitutional officers and tighten your own belt. The BOCC, Craig Coffey and Sally Sherman are only representing about 15% of the county because the other 85% is part of municipalities and they are governed by their city elected officials. Just because Craig Coffey served in the armed forces, got out and got a degree it does not qualify him to be County Administrator. He has set you commissioners to look like fools and we tax payers are going to be oaying the price for him coming to Flagler County for many years to come. He deserves to be in jail. Where is the money to pay those suing the county because of the stupidity of the commissioners and Craig Coffey? Silly elections….yea, they got the silly asses elected that let a silly fool pull the wool over their silly eyes. Game Over….Hansen and McLaughlin need to go and McDonald and Mullen need to step up to the plate!

  9. john brady says:

    do not forget,we will be building a new building for the sheriff. That will be another 5m tab

  10. Jane Gentile-Youd says:

    Real real Easy to raise $2.12 million :

    1) Fire Coffey and his Coffey Mate – there’s $400,000 ( and we know its more than that, ,,right?)

    2) Hold Craig Coffey and everyone involved in the Old contaminated Hospital purchase an estimated minimum $6,000,000. Only one way to find out for sure if a hunch many people have is to subpoena every one’s of Coffey’s cell calls since 2012, emails in and out and we should be on the road
    which may or (may not) prove to be true that he, Craig Coffey, was the chief negotiator in making the contaminated hospital purchase together with one of his sidekicks ( Nate McLaughlin) assuring the publict that the county would not close if the building wasn’t determined to be 100% clear of asbestos as per an Industrial Hygienist – and that he was an ‘expert’ in asbestos as a former worker in that industry
    It will cost the county a hell of a lot less to pursue ethics and other violations by the county than the additional testing costs us now – when we all now this piece of crap will have to come ‘ crumbling down” oe of these months or days.

    3) Okay if we lose ( 1) above we can try for the recuperation of more citizen theft ( my personal non professional opinion) of another $1.5 million ( my opinion) selling the big barn to anyone who is as dumb as the county was when they pretended the barn could house one of our fire trucks and provide a landing pad for fire rescue but guess what.

    4) Okay if 2 and 3 don’t work then we need to rally every single taxable property owner, as many of us as possible at least, to file a class action lawsuit against the county for malfeasance and to ask the court’s consent to grant us the right to have all 2018 property tax payments held by the court in escrow pending a jury decision of our allegations……..
    That’s how I see it. It is criminal( in my person non professional opinion) to stick us with bills for expenses which were criminally incurred ( my personal non professional opinion)
    How do you see it?
    I am tried of this bull?
    Are you?

  11. Fiscal says:

    Clearly there is NO accountability anywhere.

    As for that hiring company, use the County website, ICMA, Indeed, etc. The positions that this company lists
    are those that for low level positions.

    PATHETIC management of the expenses, but again, NO ONE, on the Commission or administration, has a clue as to how to run a business.

  12. R.U. kidding says:

    You have to hand it to Coffee, here’s a guy making over 150 k plus benefits & perks works out deals to “finagle” allowing his assistant to retire with 150,000 a year pension then rehires her for 130 k to do consulting, pays out huge salaries to his cronies all the while proposing to raise taxes, layoff low level workers, cut services and stand by and watch the county decay from within.
    I would of loved to see Hansens & McLaughlin’s faces who are up for re-election when Coffee dropped that BOMB !

  13. Coyote says:

    ” “I have a really bad feeling about the $2.1 million,” Hansen, who is up for election in the Republican primary in August, said. “I think we’ve got to get that smaller, real small. I don’t have the stomach to increase the millage rate .25.” But Hansen, like his colleagues, proposed no alternative, sounding more like perennial anti-tax diehards who nevertheless demand that government maintains its services.”

    And the anti-tax diehards are on both side of the fence – both legislators AND voters.

    Legislators will avoid *ANY* increase for years to placate voters, until it becomes absolutely necessary to make a major raise. Which is then usually the “previous administration’s” fault …

    You don’t like .25? Neither do I. So, put it up .05 or even .10 NOW, and plan on small(er) increments at a future time. That at least covers a fifth or two-fifths of what you claim you need (2.1 mill). You still have to find a way to reduce the budget (let me say that again only louder … “REDUCE THE BUDGET”), not this constant and continual search for more revenue (you can only fleece a sheep so many times).

    Oh and by-the-way – Isn’t it about time to re-visit Impact Fees – which Flagler County has suspended since 2012 ? Might pick up a few cents there, Mr. Coffey (or maybe even enough to pay for the increased services, salaries, GROWTH, etc) which you are calling for the .25 to pay.

  14. Reed says:

    Agree with Anonymous, Replace the County Manager and his crony personnel/salary practices and tax increases not necessary. A day of reckoning coming to Commissioners who cannot remove County Manager and silently side with his salary and contract practices that result in increase taxes. Shame on you.

  15. Anonymous says:

    A hard look needs to made at just where the money is being spent. One big hole they pore money into is the county clinic, but still the higher Ins premiums are past along to the blue collar workers who cant afford them because of their low rate of pay while the Sally Sherman elite upper echelon employees get Cart Blanc on how much they are paid, their retirement, and medical benefits. I’ll bet the commissioners don’t even know how the money is spent, because Coffey keeps his thumb on the budget and the commissioners. COFFEY NEEDS TO GO!

  16. Edith Campins says:

    Perhaps if you stopped overpaying for derelict properties, rehiring people at higher salaries, etc., an increase wouldn’t be needed. Although our population has been changing, the majority are still retirees, many on fixed incomes. And now with the closing of Sea Raymany will be unemployed. Where is the money going to come from?

  17. Jane Gentile-Youd says:

    Hang on commissioners!

    No need to raise property values nor taxes. First on the list: Fire Coffey and his Coffey Mate – that’s almost $.5 million right there –
    ***Next cancel the 18$$$ million dollar deal with Motorola and explore upgrades with the present system until paid off !

  18. Anonymous says:

    Has anyone thought to include additional cost for the impending Law Suit the County faces from sick FCSO staff because of the politically motivated purchase of the old hospital that Nate voted to approve? What about next steps for the FCSO relocation, is it included in the budget? County admin says we need $2.1 million more to cover next year but has it’s head in the sand, or elsewhere, about this self inflicted injury and catastrophic situation with our $8 million sick FCSO center?

  19. Bill says:

    Anonymous says:
    June 26, 2018 at 5:56 pm
    You wanna raise tax rates. But you rehire the assistant couny manager at a higher salary. You are paying a christian based company as a head hunter. What happened to seperation of church and state. You are paying that company 90k.

    Anonymous is RIGHT on the point of a BACK DOOR shameful “rehire” of a county executive. On friday she left with a Valery of some 139K a year on Monday that EXACT SAME POSITION and person is costing the Flagler taxpayer nearly 200K. The church and state thing is nonexistent though.

  20. Keep Flagler Beautiful says:

    How utterly insensitive to be talking about pay raises in light of the shameful Sally Sherman “retirement and overnight rehiring” at great cost to the sucker taxpayers. I would like to know what each of the commissioners is receiving for a salary and benefits. I also would like to know why ANY person is allowed to run for a commissioner’s seat if they don’t live in Flagler County — or even Florida! Does anyone out there know this information, as we’re not likely to learn it from the commissioners themselves. Before voting in our next election, everyone should think very carefully and look into the personal profile of each candidate running for commissioner or any other public office.

  21. Big red says:

    You can’t always get what you want but approvals for increased budgets are necessary to improve quality of life then our property values will appreciate at a higher rate than taxes also let’s invest in ways to lure tourists in our community .tourism is Florida’s largest source of income and we need to get a bigger bite of the apple as 70% of that travel by auto drive right by us

  22. anon says:

    Yep, typical republican shenanigans going on – raising taxes everywhere they can so THEY can get rich (or bigger raises) even if they don’t deserve it. Vote ’em out. NO to property tax increases.

  23. A Dedicated American says:

    You talk about impact fees. When the county administrator Coffey and Plantation Bays Representative, Commissioner Nate McLaughlin, agreed to purchase the broken down water facility from builder Mori Housanni for $5,500.000, Coffey and the commissioners ( Nate McLaughlin) gave Housanni credits on future impact fees.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Hansen has already cooked his own goose when he has been public ally commending Craig Coffey. We have had enough Coffey and it is true, too much can be harmful to your health!!! Since these commissioners have failed us, we must send them a message…..YOU’RE FIRED! We will elect new keadsership in Hanson and McKaughlin’s seats this fall. Both men have proved to be spineless, and hazzardous to our wealth!

  25. Fiscal says:

    Why not try zero-based budgeting? Oops…NO ONE in there knows that that is!
    Again, no one there has real business experience….

  26. j. michael kelley says:

    To Fiscal I say one commissioner does have real business experience. That is Mr. Donald O”Brien. The rest would be wise to listen to him.

  27. Knows Jack says:

    j. michael kelley…I 100% Agree. We need more smart, courageous and high integrity leaders like Commissioner O’Brien. Not worms who think cutting ribbons will attract high paying quality jobs. Can you imagine a CEO coming to town and we tell him,,,,move your business here and we’ll cut a ribbon~!

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