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Agonizing Over Tax Increase, Indecisive County Commission Defers To Administrator

| July 2, 2018

Don't blame him for being in the driver's seat: Most county commissioners have been incapable of giving County Administrator the clear direction he's sought on taxes in two successive budget hearings, so he's filling in the blanks. (© FlaglerLive)

Don’t blame him for being in the driver’s seat: Most county commissioners have been incapable of giving County Administrator the clear direction he’s sought on taxes in two successive budget hearings, so he’s filling in the blanks. (© FlaglerLive)

Every county commission meeting starts with a moment of silence. Today’s had them at recurring intervals. Commissioners weren’t praying, exactly–except perhaps for those facing an election in a few weeks. They just couldn’t give their administrator direction on what to cut, how much to cut or even whether to cut a budget to limit a property tax increase.


Taxes are going up regardless. The question was by how much. In the end, and with one exception–Commissioner Don O’Brien alone provided an actual list of proposed cuts–the rest of the commission went with a a tax increase only symbolically smaller than the one County Administrator Craig Coffey had proposed, still without proposing actual cuts. The difference will allow commissioners to say that they put their foot down, but they didn’t, really, so much as they made a lot of noise about not wanting to increase taxes and complicating the administrator’s ability to manage the books.

Coffey had laid out his and constitutional officers’ budget plans over the past few weeks. The budgets combined, including those of the sheriff, the clerk of court and other constitutional officers, call for a $7 million budget increase. More than half would be covered by new tax revenue because of rising values, assuming commissioners did not reduce the tax rate from its current level.

But Coffey was left with a $2 million gap that would require a slight tax increase to cover–the equivalent of $28 for the average-valued homesteaded house in the county (not accounting for the cost of increasing values). Last week commissioners said they didn’t want taxes to increase by that 25 cents, but they couldn’t come up with cuts. They decided to make their proposals either in conversations with Coffey or by email over the course of the week.

Most of them appear not to have done even that. By the time today’s workshop began, Coffey had a bit of good news: valuations are such that revenue will actually be $260,000 higher than projected even last week, so the actual revenue gap was down to $1.84 million, and the needed tax rate increase to cover it would have to be 22 cents. But commissioners were still not comfortable with the figure. And none spoke up with concrete ideas.

Then the moments of silence began.

Like last week, they were more comfortable talking about what Commissioner Greg Hansen termed “imperatives,” such as new money for the sheriff to pay the county’s share of school resource officers, or raises for employees, or the revenue shortfall to come in 2020 should voters approve an expansion of the homestead exemption this fall, as they are expected to do.

Coffey repeatedly coaxed commissioners back to the proposed budget, urging them to give him direction. “I think we’re kind of in a weird year where everything is growing, we have strategic objectives we’re trying to accomplish and we’re still in a storm phase,” Coffey said. “I know several of you are up for election, it’s not my desire to bring you a millage increase, but sometimes you have to–this is the best budget I’m going to bring to you short of trimming it. If I get no guidance from the board I will continue to try and shave, I’ll continue to try and make the cuts I talked to you about.”

It took a while, but finally Sullivan said he wanted Coffey to work with a tax rate increase equivalent to 20 cents per $1,000 in taxable value (or $20 for the year, for a property owner of a house valued at $150,000, with a $50,000 homestead exemption). Hansen and O’Brien said they wanted to stick with the current tax rate of $8.1167 per $1,000 in taxable value, not raise it. That would still, under Florida law, be defined as a tax increase, because property owners’ tax bill will increase due to values increasing.

Commissioner Nate McLaughlin didn’t give a number: “The conservative says don’t raise taxes but the realist says you still got to provide the services,” he said, leaning more toward providing services: I’m just feeling this obligation to provide the services to the citizens,” he said. Commissioner Charlie Ericksen didn’t let on either way. (McLaughlin and Hansen are in the August primary.)

O’Brien then offered the only concrete proposed cuts of the day to keep the tax rate flat–”at that rate we’re still spending an additional $4,750,000, which is new revenue coming from assessments and new construction and I think we should live with that”–eliminating what he said added up to almost $1.5 million. Calling himself the “jerk in the room” (to howls from his colleagues, who clearly were appreciative of his willingness to do what they were not), he said he’d eliminate a slew of additional positions, limit salary raises only to cost-of-living, reduce spending on “hardening” in preparation of storms, and eliminate money slated for emergency radio equipment (money the county is required to spend, however).

“My proposal is, keep it at 8.1167, that would be my guidance,” Hansen said, echoing O’Brien, but without proposing actual cuts in Coffey’s budget.

“I just want to make sure we understand the ramifications of what we’re saying,” Coffey said, noting that taking that approach would result in employees leaving “in droves” because of absent pay increases, among other issues.

But after more discussion and further moments of silence, Hansen reversed course and joined with Sullivan’s proposal, leaving it to Coffey to figure out how to make the numbers work, though that would amount to finding roughly $150,000 to cut. Coffey said that would be manageable. “What Commissioner Sullivan proposed, I can get to without abandoning a lot of your strategic objectives,” Coffey said.

That means the current county tax rate of 8.1167 would go up to $8.3167 per $1,000 in taxable value. The tax bill on a $150,000 house would increase from $812 to $832, not including the increase due to appreciating values. (Put it this way: if you have a house valued at $150,000 this year, it will have almost certainly increased in value by at least 3 percent next year, if not double that. But the assessment cap kicks in at 3 percent. So your house would be valued at $154,500, and assessed at $104,500, once the homestead exemption is accounted for. The county tax bill would be $869 compared to $812 today–a difference of $57, assuming the commission stuck to today’s proposed tax rate.

From the tenor of the discussion though, and with the possible effects of a greater homestead exemption on the budget starting in 2020, school officials perhaps should be concerned about the commission’s commitment to funding the sheriff’s budget to the extent that it pays for half the school district’s resource officers. “You don’t have to do that,” Coffey said to commissioners, referring to their role in the sheriff’s budget. “Big counties are not doing that.” It’s entirely the school board’s responsibility, he said, essentially describing the county’s and sheriff’s contribution as entirely discretionary. “There’s going to be a time between all the challenges you’re facing you’re not going to be able to take on someone else’s responsibility,” Coffey said.

Former Commissioner Alan Peterson was one of two people who addressed the commission at the end of the meeting, in part to offer his sympathies: “I appreciate the struggles you’ve had, I was one of the county commissioners during the bad years, it’s difficult to reduce what you feel you really need,” Peterson said. He was concerned about the 5 percent raises proposed in the sheriff’s budget as opposed to lesser raises in the rest of the county’s budget, saying the differences create morale issues and are at odds with the way raises were offered in the past. But that’s not wholly accurate: sheriff’s employees’ pay is in large part controlled by union contracts, which diverge from contracts elsewhere in county government.

Peterson also said the county should “look hard” at its economic development department, a nearly half-million dollar cost. “I’m beginning to question what we’re getting being cost effective,” he said of that department.

The commission meets again on July 9, when Coffey is expected to submit a budget based on the new numbers.

The Flagler County Government Budget Numbers

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33 Responses for “Agonizing Over Tax Increase, Indecisive County Commission Defers To Administrator”

  1. Concerned Citizen says:

    Oh good. Let’s let Coffey have more power than he already has.

    If we have a Board of County Commissioners that cannot make up their mind what do we need them for?

    Remember stuff like this at election time.

  2. Michael Cocchiola says:

    I don’t get it. We elect Republicans…they raise taxes. That’s not my point. After 20 years of working on DOD budgets, I learned one thing. You set priorities and what you can’t funds gets cut off no matter how much you want it or how valuable it seemed when you added it to the priority list. Those commissioners need to hold fast on taxes and hold spending to what we can afford. All it takes are brains, courage and leadership.

  3. Mark Holley says:

    To serve is to sacrifice. When will politicians and county workers start sacrificing? Some of their salaries are ridiculous and outrageous.

  4. Jan Reeger says:

    It’s not likely but the idiotic increase in the Homestead Exemption needs to be defeated.

  5. Robert Lewis says:

    What an absolute joke. Really this place is such a joke. MacLaughin claims to be a conservative yet he raised my taxes every year since he’s been on that board. Instead of cutting taxes, he is cutting Ribbons. No viable solutions to reduce the tax burden on the taxpayer. Just take more of my money for their pet projects. What am I getting for this tax increase? Nothing, it’s to pay for Craig’s Coffey fund for his coffee mate.

    They raised the bed tax, they raised property taxes, they raised fees. I am Taxed Enough Already! Next thing you know they will have cops writing tickets to pay for their new sheriff headquarters. I am ashamed of these commissioner. I will personally Vote them all out starting with the seat warmer & MacLaughin!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Maybe the county economic development folks should try to entice Harley Davidson to let us convert the new sheriff’s administration building into a small motorcycle assembly plant. There is plenty of local labor right next door at Flagler Pines Rehab. Harley Davidson could save a lot on labor, once Mr. Coffey convinces the Flagler Pines patients, who would be building the Harleys, that this is best form of rehab you can get. Mr. Coffey is good at convincing folks everything is all made for love. Most of those old and injured folks won’t mind trading off good, high quality therapy against a few minor irritants they may encounter from time to time in a possibly sick building. Why, we could even have the best of outcomes of four major problems: 1} get out from under the Sheriff’s/Administrator’s white elephant, 2} help Mr. Trump keep industry from going overseas in a trade war, 3} help to give the elderly and injured new purpose in life through better therapy. 4} the tax base would improve so there would be enough money to let Sally Sherman work another 10 years and retire twice. I say we try it, what do you say?

  7. Rick G says:

    The proposed tax increase is minuscule when spread out on all of the properties in Flagler… Government expenses increase every year, just like those of businesses like insurance companies that increase their rates every year without scrutiny.

  8. PC Citizen says:

    I think its time to move all the County Commission and all the rest of those Tax money Vampires into the Sick building. They will feel right at home !

  9. Flabbergasted says:

    If I understand Mr Coffey he has tasked the Board to find cuts in the proposed 17-18 budget. Is it not the role/responsibility of the County Adm, to find or present a budget that is fiscally responsible instead of simply saying the county needs a tax increase??? Oops, forgot Mr Coffey has never worked outside the public sector.

    1. I suggest if the Board is looking at ways to cut the budget they start with the Administration. The 15-16 general fund revenues actuals were $657, 732. Proposed 17-18, $ 810.274. Of the 17-18 proposed adm budget the personnel costs is $ 739,233. (Not sure if this even reflects the $150,000 plus private contract for the deputy admin.) His staff is bloated.

    2, Time to re-think the return on value for having an emergency helicopter for flagler county. This operation no longer can simply be supported by taxpayer dollars for the services it provides. This budgeted 16-17 was $631,711. Most counties have done away with emergency helicopters.

    These are just the tip of the iceberg if the Board is looking to manage the budget and not simply growing it as the County Manager would encourage.

    The 2013 update on the master plan has as it’s number one goal..

    A. Diversified Economy, Increased Commercial and Industrial Tax Base, Sustainable Business Community

    B. Effective Land Planning and Growth Management — Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Regulations

    Under the Coffey regime these goals have gone unaddressed.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Jan—when exemptions as those are received by homestead and the like, the businesses are then taxed more to make up the difference. Either way, the county gets their money! Not only will they make up the difference with businesses oaying more, they will get additional from everyone when they raise the mil rate and increase taxes across the board. It is time Coffey’s song and dance come to a stop and the BOCC start becoming responsible. Sadly the only way I see that happening is by starting this year replace McLaughlin and seat warmer Hansen—-neither have proved to be qualified for the job.

  11. Flabbergasted says:

    Flagler County is listed by the census ranks as the 34th county in population at 98,445, This is relatively small county with a extremely bloated budget. Coffey lives in a land of make believe and the Commissioners are finally seeing the results of his regime.

    Lot’s pf places to cut, Sumter County ranked ahead of us has a County Administrator with a staff of himself…. Mr. Coffey, a Deputy County Administrator nobody knew existing until she was re-hired through a shady private contractor, Two executive assistants, Special Projects Coordinator, Communications Manager, Public information officer, and a Public relations, Marketing Specialist…… This is Flagler County Folks.

    Challenge the Commissioners to evaluate the return on investment for the Flagler Flight helicopter…How many counties support a Fire Rescue helicopter ?

    We need new leadership now and it needs to start by firing Coffey for his finger-pointing attitude and lack of accountability. Commissioners stand-up. Coffey’s claim to fame is the Flight School AIrport…..Zero significant economic development Retail, retail..retail.

  12. Anonymous says:

    As a former employee of Flagler County, I am here to tell you are wages are below other Counties. We have been without a pay raise for too long. How about cutting management’s wages? They seem to be making all the money. How about it Mr. Coffey?

  13. Charles Ericksen, Jr says:

    It’s apparent that very few of the responders, have ever taken a management course in Budgeting. I’m not aware of any good budget being finalized in 2-3 meetings.. It’s a discussion . getting all the thoughts and options on the table. It’s reviewing the thoughts of counterparts and residents…. It’s also knowing, what goes into the budget,, NO RUSH TO JUDGMENT ….. One of you is complaining of ” raising the bed tax” ,,,If you are, that means you are staying at one of of the local hotels, as a ” guest” ..That is a State tax, that comes to the County, to promote tourism , and is not in your property tax.
    Jan Reeger , is correct. The increased property exemption, . took a lot of funds out of our pockets …..The Commission cut back during the downturn.. Now, new folks are moving in, and regardless of the editor’s opinion, that ” population means little” ,, Our permits are up, as well as maintaining the status quo.
    Come on out and help us,

  14. Coyote says:

    Still no mention of removing the moratorium on impact fees?

    From April 2018 news report on the Airport Commons dispute :
    “Flagler County put a freeze on the fees in 2012 and implemented an indefinite moratorium in 2015.”
    and :
    ““This is not about water and sewer, although it was framed that way,” Coffey said. “This is about impact fees. And we don’t charge them. The city does.”

    Yes, there may have been a reason to freeze them in 2012, but it’s now 2018, and supposedly, growth is booming – so required services and costs are increasing. The argument about impact fees dissuading growth is no longer valid.

  15. Rob Jr says:

    The sad part of this equation is that you voters will run to the polls and cast a vote based on the letter of the party beside someone’s name.

    If you had a company and were hiring based on performance how many of these guys would make the cut?

  16. Ben Hogarth says:

    It’s incredible to think that people still believe that by voting in Republicans, they will somehow be spared the horrors of a slight tax increase from time to time.

    I can only imagine these folks were raised with bedtime stories teaching about the liberal monsters who were open and honest about the need for tax increases.

    Believe me, no tears have been shed in watching Republican voters reap what they have sown. It is tragic, though, having to watch the youth of Flagler (among other places) suffer because so many in their parents generation refuse to see the light. I can only hope that in time, their voices will be heard.

    God knows, the boomers have sown too much, for too long.

  17. atilla says:

    That’s like handing over the keys to the prison to the convicts.

  18. Just the facts says:

    So the commissioners couldn’t take the time to examine the budget and come up with practical recommendations? Begs the question, what are we paying them for? How about a reduction to their salaries?How about we fire Ms. Sherman and save on her salary? We could hire someone to do her job for a lot less.

    Just like Landon and the city, you have to wonder what hold Coffey has on the commissioners.

    Vote

  19. Reed says:

    I would like an analysis of how many County Employees are double dipping (on county payroll and also receiving salary). I would like to see what the taxpayer savings would be if the county hired experienced non double dipping employees. The notion of tax payers double paying some select County Employees is getting silly. I would recommend stating such an analysis with each Department Head.

  20. Reed says:

    Letting Mr Coffey make recommendation is like putting the fox in the hen house. Come on elected officials – find the courage to make good decisions.

  21. Really says:

    You all should agonize more over the pay and benefits increases you vote for yourselves

  22. John Dolan esq. says:

    The good ship Flagler with Capt. Coffey at the helm. Shiver me timbers Mate’. Mutiny on Moody.

  23. County employee says:

    I would like to address all those bashing county employees. Other than administrators, we are paid lower than most of our counterparts. We all agree the debacle with Sally Sherman is outrageous and Coffey needs to move on. I would be willing to bet Sherman is the only one double dipping. And as far as the helicopter, it brings in revenue to offset its budget.

  24. Pitching Wedge says:

    How about a wage freeze for all employees making $75,00 and up? How much would that save??

  25. Priscilla Bugari says:

    5 new mustangs for traffic control seems a bit over the top and hardly necessary. Not an expense that was really needed.

  26. Sherry says:

    Just make sure you all enjoy trump’s Republican “HUGE FEDERAL TAX CUT”. . . received by the “middle class”! Yeah Right!

  27. Fiscal says:

    You cannot keep counting on revenues being stable or growing to cover expenses.
    How about cutting expenses?

    Oh, thats right..the Commissioners and Manager have NO business experience with that!

  28. Flabbergasted says:

    Commissioners:

    Please have Mr Coffey justify these salaries and job categories that he has created…. Tourism, community services and economic growth all have been stagnant under Coffey. His finger pointing and blaming the Commissioners for balking at a tax rate hike is insulting. Time for new leadership.

    These are 2016 salaries, does not include retirement costs.

    Hadeed County Attorney $ 215,855

    Coffey ( 12/07 ) $ 178,309.

    Sherman (9/08) $ 134,778.

    Exec Director for Economic Growth $ 121,902.

    Comm Services Director $ 98,888.

    Tourism Development Director $ 85,850.

    Project Manager $ 69.649.

    Project Manager $ 58,076.

    Exec Assistant to City Adm $ 55,949.

    ______________________________________________________

    General Services Director $ 96,222

    Financial Serv Dir $ 92,928

    Budget Manager $ 65,479.

    Financial Management Coord $ 57,165.

    _________________________________________________________

    Flagler Flight Training School Dir $114,000.

  29. Rob Jr says:

    Need money?

    Here is a place to cut first.

    https://flaglerlive.com/123959/bike-and-foot-trail/

  30. carol says:

    Budget gap??? Very easy. Cut County payroll by 10%, And the top tier by 20%.
    What? county employees make less than who???
    Go to the private sector, and learn what it really means to work.
    Where you have to compete for business. And not work for a monopoly such as the government.

  31. Frank says:

    Higher taxes and less services… nothing new here.

  32. Keep Flagler Beautiful says:

    One thing they DON’T agonize over is their pay raises. One quick swipe of the pen and it’s a done deal. There should be an absolute moratorium on pay raises for the fat cats. Period. If the average person doesn’t have the money to pay for something, they don’t buy it. There is no money available to support their lavish lifestyles, so stop spending. We do not want our taxes raised; we want the spending curbed, and dramatically so. You can start by retiring Sally Sherman. Taxpayers are still smoldering over that shady deal.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Get rid of some of the high paying created positions and tell the Supervisor of Elections that she doesn’t get $100,000 budget increase every year. This local government “COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS” only serves about 15,000 citizens or about 15 percent of the county, the rest is served by MUNICIPALITIES with the largest one being Palm Coast and our CITY COUNCIL members make decisions as far as code enforcement, swales, drainage etc in their areas. There is no logical explanation for all the high paying jobs at the county level and the BOCC has allowed these jobs to be created without evidence being presented that they are even needed or warranted. The BOCC should be intelligent enough to know what jurisdiction they serve and what a small area they actually serve and use some common sense when things are pushed through the “Consent Agenda”. They should put a stop to Coffey and company putting things on the consent agenda and renewing their contracts a year or more in advance and for allowing them now to have an ever renewing contract without it ever having to come back up before the BOCC. I sure hope we get some new elected officials in office that can fix these problems and put a stop to this scheme that is costing us tax payers and resulting in our taxes being increased because of poor management. There is no reason for a tax increase when property values have been increasing over the past several years. When the values increase the property owners pay more and the county gets more. The county obviously has a problem of spending and living beyond their means. It is time that this county stop acting like they are a bigger county when the BOCC actually serves so little!

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