Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon this week began a series of four town meetings intended to present information on a proposal to build a new Palm Coast City Hall. The first meeting was held at the Indian Trails Middle School cafeteria Monday in front of an audience of about 40. The second will be held tonight at the Palm Coast Community Center on Palm Coast Parkway. Landon has been touring small community associations in the lead-up to the larger town hall meetings.
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Landon’s showings are an attempt to sway public opinion in favor of a city hall project the public roundly rejected five years ago, when the economy was far stronger, the city richer, and its ranks growing fast. The city’s employee ranks have been shrinking, the city’s reserves are the lowest they’ve been in the city’s history, the city’s property taxes will likely be raised next year if, as the property appraiser projects, valuations will fall again this year, and a compelling case for a $10 million public building at public expense remains elusive.
In 2005, Palm Coast held a referendum on a bond levy to build a new city hall. The referendum was defeated with the largest margin of any referendum in this county in the past decade. Exactly 11,522 people voted, with 82 percent opposed, though almost every referendum by the city, the county or the school board in the past decade for public projects—to increase the sales tax for infrastructure, to increase property taxes for environmental land protection, and even to build a new courthouse and a new administration building for the county—has been approved.
Landon and the city council aren’t risking another referendum on the matter: the result, they suspect, would not be much different than the one in 2005, especially in the present climate.
But they want their city hall, though so far Landon wants it more than his council does: he’s not facing re-election as other members of the council will be. The council put the new city hall on its priority list for 2010-11, but not among its top priorities. The city manager has focused on it as a top priority, however.
What both council and manager lacked was a credible way to finance the building with tax dollars after tax-payers rejected the idea. Landon devised a storyboard and a strategy: no new taxes would be used to finance the new building (the 2005 proposal for city hall alone would have raised taxes by 35 cents per $1,000 in taxable property value) and it would be smaller than the 2005 project. And he would sell the idea to the public.
The scenario has mostly followed that of 2005. As in 2005, when then-City Manager Dick Kelton was the biggest enthusiast for the new city hall, Landon is its biggest enthusiast now. As in 2005, when Kelton couldn’t get his own council to openly back the new city hall, Landon has not been able to get his city council to publicly speak in favor of the building. In that sense, the council members are playing a double game: they want the building and have endorsed it officially, but they’re not staking their public reputation on it. On Monday, City Council member Holsey Moorman accompanied Landon to the Indian Trails meeting. Moorman bristled when someone in the audience suggested that he had already made up his mind about it.
In this latest go-around, as in 2005, opposition is again focusing on the manner in which the city is going about muscling through the city hall proposal—pushing for it without showing either a need or seeking the public’s explicit approval. The claim that the city is growing, made in 2005, doesn’t wash anymore. The city’s workforce of 400 actually shrunk by 28 positions this year, with no indication of a turn-around. If there is an essential difference between the city hall project in 2005 and the city hall project of 2010, it’s that residents will not be given a choice in 2010. Instead, the city is going through the pretense of giving residents a say by hosting sparsely attended, and transparently one-sided, community meetings.
Landon’s approach has been to use those community meetings as de-facto public input, though no votes are taken and the conversation is mostly one-sided: the presentation is the city’s, with no opposition save what comments audiences may make along the way. The message is tightly controlled, as are the few facts presented, and no budgetary context is presented–no talk of reserves, long-term financial health, or what, for example, the city could do with $10 million at the ready for its residents, if it were not to spend the money on a city hall.
On Monday, Landon started out with a few jokes (“do you want to talk about a new City Hall, or ABC Liquors?”), referring to previous comments about the location and size of the newest retail business opening this month at the intersection of Palm Coast Parkway and Old Kings Road. The actual city hall presentation consisted of a 33-slide Powerpoint presentation that combined several similar presentations made to the Palm Coast City Council in the last half year, since Landon made building a city hall a priority. The numbers used in the presentation, such as the $10 million cost for the project, are the city’s own: they have not been independently verified.
The presentation was wrapped in with a “community update” listing many of the city’s showcase accomplishments—the completion of Old Kings Road’s four-laning near State Road 100, the opening of Town Center’s Epic Theater, coming restaurants, and yes, even the arrival of the liquor store, though aside from Old Kings Road, the city’s role in each of these commercial regards was more administrative and regulatory. The manager also played up newly opened parks and trails. The aim, of course, was to soften the audience’s resistance to the new city hall by linking the proposed building to other feel-good projects.
The show was followed by a comments and a Q&A session. The average age of those in attendance was in excess of 65 years old.
Landon recapped the proposed city hall’s basics: a 40,000-square foot “Palm Coast looking building” that will include a city council chamber, “sized” for current operations, with flexibility for expansion as the area and city grow. It will be built on land owned by the city—or rather, by taxpayers–north of Central Lake in Town Center. The price tag, at about $250 per square foot, will include all site work and new furniture.
The City proposes to pay cash for the building, through much juggling of internal budgetary funds. Though the city doesn’t say so, and Landon did not say so Monday evening, borrowed money is involved: more than half the money (58 percent) is to be provided by the Town Center Community Redevelopment Agency (essentially, the Palm Coast City Council serving as representative of Town Center) “repaying” $5.8 million it has borrowed from the city’s general fund over the years to develop Town Center. The CRA doesn’t have that money to repay. It will be borrowing it, at regular commercial rates, in order to foot the bill. In other words, the city is borrowing money to build city hall—and the interest paid by the CRA for the new note is not included in the cost of the new building.
The funds paying for the new building also include $1 million in “surpluses” in the building department. That surplus was the result of the city overbilling developers and builders for building permits during the city’s boom days; the city has since slashed permitting costs 90 percent, calling it a “savings” to builders and developers. The utility fund would contribute about 12 percent of the cost, or $1.2 million, from administrative services fees that appear on customers’ water bills, which have also increased steadily over the years. The city’s capital projects fund would also kick in $2 million, ostensibly using some of the $3 million generated from the sale of the old city hall to Palm Coast Data.
All these funds were partially explained by Landon, with another joke along the way—that he was “not too good at figures, but that is what we have accountants for.”
The city claims no new taxes will be used to pay for the city hall. That’s true. But the city is using fees taxpayers, ratepayers and other residents pay every day to foot the building’s bills, and it is diverting $10 million in public money that could be used to other public uses.
Other talking points included justifying buying the new building with a onetime capital expenditure versus paying rent (currently $240,000 a year at the city’s City Market Place offices, formerly City Walk), and having nothing to show for it but rent receipts. Landon said using a contract manager to supervise construction rather than a general contractor—there being no local general contractor that could handle the job—would allow the city to use more local labor.
During the Q&A many questions arose over terminology used (and often used in government meetings to confound audiences), such as “CRA” and “TIF” (TIF being “tax increment financing,” which determines how a CRA’s tax revenue is captured and used for the duration of that CRA.)
There were a couple of challenges as to whether the decision to build the city hall had already been made, regardless of resident input. One resident raised Moorman’s dander by accusing him of already having made his decision. Moorman denied that he had. One couple left the meeting early after an exchange with others on wanting to “live in the small, quiet town we moved to a few years ago,” and suggesting that there is no reason to make the city bigger. While many questioned the need and priority for new offices for city employees and services, one or two supported the building. The Q&A carried on until 8 p.m.
After tonight’s meeting at the community center, Landon will make a presentation at the Buddy Taylor Middle School Cafeteria on Nov. 15 and the African American Cultural Society on Nov. 22.