It was a rare, and for Flagler County an unprecedented, show of support bringing all local governments behind the same initiative: Palm Coast’s hope of bringing the University of North Florida to town. There stood Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland, facing the county’s legislative delegation this afternoon–Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner–and there they all stood, literally behind Holland and Palm Coast: the mayors of Bunnell and Flagler Beach, the city managers of the three cities and the county administrator.
Renner and Hutson were holding their legislative delegation meeting in Bunnell this afternoon, the annual session when they hear goals and wish lists from local governments, law enforcement, social service agencies and individuals in preparation for the legislative session beginning in mid-January. Typically each government has a list of its own that seldom intersects with other governments’ goals. The goals can even reflect an undertow of rivalry as each government makes a pitch for its own dollars.
Not this time. Though the county and Flagler Beach had a few goals of their own (Flagler Beach is desperate for help with its water and shaky sewer system, the county is never short of big needs, not least of them state support for a planned library in Bunnell), they all lined up behind Palm Coast’s projected partnership with UNF and the university’s hope of opening a satellite operation in Town Center to train nurses for the local and regional job market.
Holland had handed Hutson and Renner a booklet collecting each local government’s resolutions of support and UNF’s own summary brief of the initiative, which turns Palm Coast into one of its academic and training hubs for nurses and other disciplines in health care, health data analytics and ethics. Holland then spoke of the city’s aims for its innovation district in Town center, chief among them a higher education presence of some sort that would fill a void in a 60-mile radius.
“This will be a transformative project not only to the city of Palm Coast but to the entire county, the school district and to the region as a whole,” Holland told the delegation. The mayor summarized the steps so far of the $23 million UNF initiative, which is on the agenda of the Board of Governors’ teleconference meeting Friday for final approval. Assuming it is approved and forwarded to the Legislature (along with a dozen other monetary requests from other universities), “that’s where both Rep. Renner, Sen. Hutson, you will really play a key role in this process,” Holland said.
The project will create a pipeline for local students in Flagler and surrounding counties, Holland said, “tying together the regional institutions that will allow for job creation to exist immediately and permanently, hopefully in keeping our students home, so we don’t have that brain drain we always hear about,” Holland said. The initiative isn’t just about nurses but would enhance Daytona State College’s programs and tie into the school district’s career programs.
“So elevates the region, elevates the state, elevates obviously our community, but it’s really about our students,” Holland said. “We know that medical jobs are going to be a continuum, and the fact of the matter is that having the ability to have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, in different types of medical job opportunities, is extraordinary. So we’re very excited to be a part of this process. We’re also very excited for the first time in Flagler County history to see such unified support. So we’re asking you to carry this torch for us. We’ll be there beside you each step of the way, so you will not be doing this alone. We want to be here to help you and assist you as we get through this very lengthy process so we’re all successful, getting it into the governor’s office and hopefully getting that signature.”
Bunnell mayor Catherine Robinson reinforced Holland’s message when she described her own odyssey toward getting a master’s: it took three tries and many years as distances and life circumstances interfered in a way she would not have experienced had a program been nearby. With UNF in Town Center, she said, such a program would be within minutes’ reach of Bunnell students’ homes.
“I stand corrected: it’s mayor and friends,” Hutson told Holland, having introduced her as merely the mayor of Palm Coast. “I just want to applaud all of you. It’s not always that every municipality within the county and the county itself get along, but this one, obviously you all stood by this with the support. It’s a testament to how important this project is.” Hutson recalled taking then-Superintendent Jacob Oliva on a visit in St. Johns, to a school that had a nursing-student feeder program into Flagler Hospital. “I said why can’t this be in Flagler, and it is now happening and you guys are taking it above and beyond what I ever thought or imagined could have happened.”
Local officials have strong hopes that Hutson’s seniority in the Senate, where he sits on eight committees, and Renner’s near-certain path to the House speakership in two years, will translate into legislative power on the initiatives’ behalf. But Renner in an interview before the meeting was nuanced, tamping down premature exuberance.
“It would be very helpful to have a university like UNF along with Daytona State College to bring a lot of excellent education in the area of nursing and other health care related professions,” Renner said. “The Board of Governors obviously has to weigh that proposal and make that decision which I understand will happen this week. If they decide to move forward and recommend it to the Legislature, then it will be something that Sen. Hutson and I would embrace, and will do our best to see some funding this year. However, we are in a situation where there are pending requests out there for almost $1 billion in new spending for teachers on the K-12 level. While that’s an important issue we have to figure out where that money is coming from, and sometimes that means moneys that might have been available for other things are no longer available. So I think the lift has probably become heavier as a result of that.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing raising teachers’ starting pay to $47,500, and proposing an additional $300 million in teacher bonuses. Those initiatives will very likely affect the fate of the universities’ requests.
Renner said he was “in favor, conceptually, of bonuses, and I think it’s desirable for us to try to improve teachers’ salaries,” but he wants more analysis of the concept and how it would be funded, and wants to hear what other priorities are out there, “and you’ll hear from them today at the delegation meeting.” It’s not necessarily teacher salaries, he said.
Then there are imponderables. “In a balanced-budget state like Floirida, we always have to choose between priorities, often times between really great goals,” Renner said, again sounding a note of caution. “But how much and when is really determined by how much revenue is there. And I am also concerned about the reality that the recovery that we’ve had for a decade is not going to last forever, and we have to be mindful, we don’t want to be in a position of having to cut back things because the revenue has dropped off. So we have to take it slow and be prudent.”
Hutson, who was chairing the delegation meeting this year, began the session with a moment of silence in recognition of Mary Ann Clark, the long-time civic leader who died at age 91 less than two weeks ago. He then opened the floor to the long line of officials, agency heads and individuals seeking to address the delegation, starting with Sheriff Rick Staly. The sheriff’s pitch was actually on behalf of the state sheriff’s association’s legislative goals, which includes a request to allow law enforcement to use drones for crowd and traffic management, evidence collection at crime scenes or traffic crashes, and damage assessments during natural disasters. The state restricts law enforcement’s use of airborne surveillance. Goals also include a request to enact certain qualifications to be sheriff, such as not being a convicted felon and at least five years’ experience in law enforcement.
The school district’s officials repeated their hope of preserving the legislative allocation for Flagler’s adults with disabilities program, which has been cut in the past, and pushed for more “community mental health funding,” in School Board member Colleen Conklin’s words, particularly in light of the county’s high suicide numbers.
Mike Feldbauer, who sits on the county’s drug court foundation and has been the voice of efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, spoke of daily overdoses in the county and the lack of detox facilities locally. Sandra Shanks, who chairs the county’s affordable housing committee, implored the lawmakers to preserve the state’s housing trust fund, which has been raided in the past, and be less stingy with affordable housing fund, which Shanks described as a cornerstone to the sort of initiative Palm Coast and the cities are pushing with UNF.
A parent who lost a son in prison to an overdose, asked the lawmakers to pass a law that would require corrections personnel to carry Narcan, the stabilizer administered to people experiencing an overdose. She said corrections officers should be recognized as first responders. Hutson was visibly surprised by the information–and the absence of Narcan in prisons–and said he would look into the issue.
Mike Cocchiola, speaking on behalf of the Volusia-Flagler Chapter of the ACLU, addressed mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system (people of color make up over 60 percent of the prison population, and blacks are four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana infractions) and reducing mass incarceration. He called the disparities “morally wrong.” Renner, who’s worked on criminal justice reform in past sessions, said the state two years ago established a pilot project to create real-time information about what happens to an individual from the time of arrest to sentencing. “In having that, that’ll give us a much clearer and more precise view of whether there are racial disparities, where those exist, and I think by knowing that, that will start to, if there is an issue, to start correcting how people treat people in a different way, and obviously that’s a big concern with me, to make sure that we don’t have that going on in any county of Florida.”
Renner also sought the ACLU’s support at the “back end” of the system, when inmates are released into society, to ensure that support programs are in place to help individuals secure job training and reduce recidivism. “There’s a lot that we have done, there’s a lot that we can do, especially on the back end, to make sure that the people that are returning back to the community have jobs and have a better second half to their life.”