Flagler County’s mayors and county commission chairman area happy group now. They look and sound it, as they did this morning at an annual joint appearance hosted by the Flagler County Association of Realtors: The county, Palm Coast and Bunnell all have new executive leadership, and their elected leaders speak as if clouds have lifted and new sources of energy are driving their organizations–resolving chronic controversies and problems, reinvigorating economic plans, even cleaning house, especially in Palm Coast’s administration.
Better yet: those executives are speaking to each other as they previously did not, usually as colleagues rather than Darwinian competitors. County and municipal government in Flagler is no longer a zero-sum game.
“You’re going to see a big shift and a big change and we’re really excited about that,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland told an audience of 100-some people at the breakfast forum, describing the city’s reorganization under City Manager Matt Morton as more “citizen-centric” and taking five minutes to go through a list of projects on simmer, including the possibility of a new university presence in Palm Coast.
Holland spoke with County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien, Flagler Beach Mayor Linda Provencher, Bunnell mayor Catherine Robinson, and Beverly Beach Mayor Steve Emmett–fulfilling the role of court jester most of the morning–in a forum moderated by association President Megan Ferrell. Each gave an overview of his or her government’s latest before answering written questions from the crowd.
The questions are usually a gauge of concerns among residents and the business-and more especially the Realtors’–community. But this morning’s round was uneventful but for one question about the now-evacuated Sheriff’s Operations Center in Bunnell and a question about the homeless.
A member of the audience asked the county chairman when there might be an answer from the Centers for Disease Control regarding the health of the evacuated operations center. No one knows, at least in Flagler. That answer may determine whether the building is salvageable or not, though in terms of its future as sheriff’s space, that matter is over: the sheriff will have a new operations center in Palm Coast in a few years. The question is whether county government will have another white elephant on its hands.
“I’m not going to make a hasty decision on a $6, $7, $8 million building until we have all the facts, and if the building can be mitigated, it’ll be mitigated,” O’Brien said.
The four horsemen of the post-Apocalypse now meet monthly and jointly, which was unheard of under their more gladiatorial predecessors.
O’Brien had preempted many questions in his opening statement. He’d given a quick overview of what’s been “a pretty tumultuous year in Flagler County from Flagler County government’s standpoint,” he said, beginning with “starting to turn over our administrative staff” (the forced resignation of County Administrator Craig Coffey, the hiring of Jerry Cameron in his place, first as interim, now as the administrator for at least the next three years). He described a “new sense of energy” at the administration that’s led to close to resolutions of controversial issues such as the future of Captain’s BBQ at Bing’s Landing, the plan for the new Sheriff’s Operations Center near the library in Palm Coast–a county committee today opens bids for architectural services regarding that project–and a few lessons learned along the way: “Hopefully we’re out of the real estate building or buying business going forward,” O’Brien said, a suggestive reference to the county’s string of bad real estate deals going back to 2013 and culminating a few months ago with the purchase of the moldy Sears building on Palm Coast Parkway.
O’Brien listed a few successes–the county’s dune-restoration project finishing $8 million under budget, the county’s emergency communications system approaching its own new generation of infrastructure, a symbolic decrease in the county’s tax rate this year. “Probably the thing I’m most proud of, I feel like there’s a renewed spirit of cooperation with the municipalities throughout the county,” O’Brien said.
Cameron, Morton, Bunnell’s Alvin Jackson and Flagler Beach’s Larry Newsom, the four horsemen of the post-Apocalypse, now meet monthly and jointly, which was unheard of under their more gladiatorial predecessors.
Holland made much of the new spirit of cooperation as well, going through a list of new directors in key posts appointed or about to be appointed at the city (public works, development, IT, broadband infrastructure, communications, innovations, parks and recreation. She spoke of “some of the things that were broken in our community” and the perception, often more than a perception, that “the city was not as business friendly as one would hope. That is now changed.” Holland plugged the city’s new citizen-engagement platform that enables residents to have their own ticketing system when they want an issue addressed: it allows them to follow their issue through its completion while giving the city a better sense of where residents’ concerns are concentrated. Like O’Brien, Holland also noted a few successes such as the addition of cell towers and coming streetlights to Belle Terre Parkway, part of a broader plan to light up what had been a rather dim and dour city.
When answering the question about the homeless, Holland, like O’Brien, said Palm Coast did not have a written policy addressing the issue, but that the city relied on the county’s various social programs that provide some safety nets at least to a few homeless, and to those who ask for the help (many do not). Bunnell did pass an anti-panhandling ordinance last year, an effort Robinson described as an attempt to ward off intimidation.
The only time any of the officials were interrupted by applause was when Robinson said the ordinance was an effort to protect businesses. But the room soon tittered with laughter when Robinson said that part of the penalties against violators includes a $150 fine. Provencher noted that her city commission this evening is discussing the possible approval, on first reading, of an ordinance targeting “aggressive panhandling.”
The officials’ default position on the issue, however, was that the matter is larger than any single jurisdiction, and that appropriate data is lacking as a basis for an effective strategy.
Emmett at first made light of the issue: “We do not have homeless in Beverly Beach,” he said. “If we see someone that looks like they would like to plant themselves at the curb, it’s simple enough for us to walk them to one end or the other” of town. He then traced much of the problem to drugs and mental health before declaring himself unfit to address it, echoing a sentiment he said was spoken among the four mayors at their quarterly meeting the day before: “What is the solution? Nobody seems to know the real solution.”
There were also questions about Costco (it’s not on its way), “tiny homes” (ditto), and amenities for families. “I think we’ve got a total of six children in the town,” Emmett said, though the response from Holland, whose father’s name is on Palm Coast’s biggest park, was more amenity-rich.