For the last 10 weeks or so the four men on Palm Coast City Council acted more like four characters in search of a boys’ camp than elected officials serving the city’s largest city. That may have ended Tuesday evening when, shortly after David Alfin’s swearing in as mayor, the council approved next year’s tentative property tax rate, with only a few hours to spare.
The approval of a tentative tax rate by the first week of August is a legal requirement in Florida. It isn’t the actual tax rate that property owners will pay, but only the maximum tax rate that may be set from that point forward, with room to set it below the rate by the time local governments approve their final millage in September. The tentative or so-called truth-in-millage, or TRIM rate, is mailed to property owners, giving them a chance to consider the proposal and contest it before their governments if they so choose. Approval of the Trim rate is usually as routine as approving minutes of previous meetings–as it has been in the county, in Bunnell and Flagler Beach.
But not in Palm Coast. On July 20, the four-member council broke down in puerile debate over the rate as if it were the final word on the matter. The administration was proposing to continue with the current rate. Council member Ed Danko wanted to set the tentative rate at a symbolically lower point than the current $4.6989 per $1,000 in taxable value, where it’s been since 2019. Councilman Victor Barbosa wanted it rolled back all the way to $4.4594 per $1,000, the so-called rolled-back rate at which the city would realize the same revenue next year as it did this year. Only by adopting the rolled-back rate (or below) would a government be avoiding a tax increase, according to Florida law.
Council members Eddie Branquinho and Nick Klufas, who favored the administration’s approach, argued in vain that the tentative rate was just that, a working rate that could be adjusted down (but not up) in the next few weeks, but that setting it at the current rate would give the administration and the council room to work with. Neither side budged, and the council failed to approve the tentative rate. The County Commission had gone through a similar version of the debate, but with a different outcome: Commissioner Andy Dance had proposed a symbolic decrease in the tentative rate. His colleagues said it could come to that, but not just yet. Dance conceded, without showboating, and the commission adopted its Trim rate civilly.
The administration’s Helena Alves, the finance director, again made her budget presentation to the council Tuesday evening, this time with Alfin on the dais. Several council members did not hide their boredom, or at least their attempts to outdo each other with knowingness (“We went through this three four times, so I know it by heart,” Branquinho said. “No questions, I’ve heard it before,” Danko said.)
But Alves had reiterated that even with the tax rate remaining flat, there were a few items that would remain unfunded. Those include four of the Flagler County Sheriff’s requested 10 additional deputies, a $456,000 cost. The city has administrative needs of $650,000, and the city’s paving program is “still at a deficit of $1 million,” she said. The property tax rate would have to be increased accordingly if the council were to pay for these services–or find cuts elsewhere.
Alfin before his election had already pledged to adopt the flat tax rate, at least as a start. “Because of the the timeline of the special election, I have not participated in the creation of the budget,” he said Tuesday evening. “So I’m scrambling now to dig down into the line items to have a complete and full understanding. It’s my opinion that each of the city council members will do their very best to reduce the tax burden on any of our residents and taxpayers. What that means is a commitment from each of us to look at each line item throughout the budget, and make sure that we not only understand it, but that it makes sense for each of us.”
Alfin spoke of the council having made a “primary priority” of public safety, which includes the fire services and the sheriff’s policing, and hinted, inaccurately, that the council may not have been approaching it that way. The statement is sharply at odds with the budget he’d just heard. The proposed budget is providing for an increase of six deputies, for a total of 39–an 18 percent increase in the city’s supplemental police force. That’s the single largest manpower increase, proportionately, of any city service. The sheriff’s budget overall is increasing by 31 percent (from $4.25 million to $5.3 million), again, the single-largest proportionate increase in the city budget by far.
The additional deputies are being funded while other city services are not, a concern to Klufas. “We’ve budgeted for them, we’re just not going to have the funding for them,” Klufas said. “How do we how do we move forward? Do we try to tap into our reserves to be able to fulfill these services that are necessary this year?” Alves cautioned against using reserves to pay for recurring operational expenses that carry on year after year.
The sheriff’s Chief Mark Strobridge, who had spoken to the council two weeks ago, briefly appeared before the council before its vote to say that Sheriff Staly “does not support increasing millage rates to fund law enforcement.” That’s true, but Staly had been behind the county’s ill-fated push to increase the sales tax to fund public safety, and had built his budget, with the request of 10 deputies from Palm Coast and 15 from the county–the largest single-year increase in either governments’ budgets in history–based on that sales tax revenue being available. Now that it won’t be, the city and the county are having to accommodate what they can of the request from within existing revenue means.
Strobridge went on the claim that “we’ve now seen for the third time that Parks and Recreation budget is the priority over funding.” Other than the very unusual meddling of a law enforcement agency in a city’s budget details (department heads within the city would never dream of openly competing for city dollars at each other’s expense before the council: that’s usually done around the city manager’s table), Strobridge’s claim was demonstrably inaccurate–in absolute terms and in proportionate terms: the city’s budget is increasing the sheriff’s budget by 31 percent, or $1.24 million, even without the full 10 requested deputies. The Parks and Recreations budget–including maintenance and such perennial loss leaders as the tennis club and the golf club–is increasing by $1.1 million, or 17 percent.
The sheriff’s issue went to the the details of the discussion, details yet to be hashed out in the coming weeks. The more salient matter was the immediate approval of the tentative rate. “We don’t want to hit the snooze button or the panic button. This is needs to be done by tomorrow,” Klufas said. Alfin was signaling that he was all for the flat rate at the moment. “I would not want to reduce the number of tools so early in the process. We still have some time under which to find the reductions that–and I’m sure we will,” Alfin said.
He wasn’t saying much that Klufas and Branquinho hadn’t said at the July meeting. But since Alfin was now saying it, and Danko’s palm still warm from Alfin’s unexpected handshake right after Alfin’s swearing in, that gave Danko a way to save face and go along with the flat rate he’d opposed two weeks ago.
“I’m encouraged by our new mayor saying that he is going to dive deep into this budget,” a chastened Danko said, though he couldn’t resist a backhanded slap at Alfin, whom he and the mayoral candidate whose campaign he’d managed–Alan Lowe, who was not in the audience–he’d brutalized for weeks on the campaign trail: “When you campaigned in your TV commercials and your your literature, you campaigned as a conservative who won’t raise taxes. Keeping the millage rate at its present rate is a tax increase.”
The vote to approve the tentative rate was 4-0, though not before one more tweak from Danko: “Mr. Mayor, you can just ask, you don’t have to do an individual vote if you don’t wish to. Just ask for the yeas and the nays,” Danko said, seeming uncomfortable with roll-call votes when the city clerk asks each council member to spell out his vote, thus giving the audience a clear understanding of who voted how. It’s routinely done in Flagler Beach, and often done in Palm Coast. Calling himself a “creature of habit,” Alfin, who had until recently been chairing the meetings of the Flagler County Education Foundation, rebuffed Danko: “I’ll stick to my guns tonight,” Alfin said, “and then we’ll we’ll move forward. But I will ask for a roll call vote. Thank you.”