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Economic Development Summit: Can Flagler’s 33 Elected Get It Up?

| January 31, 2011

Local governments are still looking for their light bulb at the end of the spiral. (© Alt-Gr)

How many elected officials does it take to screw in a light bulb? Don’t expect to find out this evening, when county, municipal and school officials gather for a summit on economic development, along with unelected representatives from the local chambers of commerce.

The Flagler County Commission summoned the meeting and is hosting it under the gavel of Commission Chairman Alan Peterson. It features the 33 elected officials from Palm Coast (five), Flagler Beach (six), Bunnell (five), Beverly Beach (six), Marineland (one), the school board (five) and the county (five). Postponed once in early December, when the various governments weren’t ready to make their pitch, the meeting isn’t likely to be more substantive tonight, not only because of polite but explicit discord between governments, but because there is no clarity within each government on how to proceed. There is more clarity on what to oppose.

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As a result, and as economic growth continues and unemployment ticks down, Flagler’s economy is likelier to stabilize of its own before any local plan is enacted. And while every government claims a common purpose, the result may be the adoption of a symbolic—but nevertheless costly, to taxpayers—economic development plan that loses the forest for the trees: it would give the appearance of political unity without yielding actual jobs, other than those created by the governments’ new economic development bureaucracy.

Summits are usually the culmination of a long process. Governments agree among themselves about a strategy and a plan of action. Those governments’ staffs get together to compare plans, analyze disagreements and explore common ground that can then be brought back to each elected body for discussion. Much of the groundwork, in other words, would be laid out ahead of time. None of that has happened. Instead, governments are gathering for a summit that amounts to a mingling of first drafts at cross purposes.

Each government will have 10 minutes to present its plan, and the public will have 30 minutes to have its say. The plans are the work of each local government’s administration, except in Flagler Beach, where the acting city manager took dictation as late as last Thursday evening from his commissioners on what ought to be in the plan. It’s emblematic of the underlying shakiness of the process that county commissioners made a point of saying that the “one voice, one pot” plan they’re presenting isn’t necessarily the commission’s one voice on the matter, but merely its administrator’s draft of one possibility. (Commissioner Milissa Holland, for example, has a plan of her own, but the commission is shunning it for now.)

None of the plans has much in common with the others. There is no agreement—not even within the municipalities or the county—on what strategy to adopt: strategies or business plans haven’t even been discussed, making agreement across turfs virtually impossible.

Palm Coast has outright rejected the county’s approach on every fundamental count—no to more taxation, no to a “one pot” structure, no to a new governing entity for economic development. Flagler Beach agrees with Palm Coast on what to reject, but not on what to adopt. And Bunnell thinks the county is out to get it. In Bunnell City Commissioner’s Elbert Tucker’s words, who was referring to County Commission Chairman Alan Peterson, “we have a chairman of the board who’s against Bunnell.”

That’s not quite true, though it indicates to what extent perceptions will play at least as large a role as reality throughout the process. Tucker’s (and Bunnell’s) fear is that its seat at the eventual economic development table will not be equal to those of Palm Coast and the County, and in fact in Peterson’s vision, it wouldn’t be: Peterson’s ideal economic development council would have three seats for Palm Coast, two for the county, and one each for Bunnell and Flagler Beach, with business and industry filling in a few more seats. He wants the largest city in the county to have the larger representation, but not the majority voice. The county administrator’s plan levels out the seats. Tucker and County Commissioner Barbara Revels are leaning on giving businesses a larger voice than governments. Palm Coast doesn’t want to play musical chairs at all. It prefers the plush of its own seats.

Even assuming structural agreement on the size of a common table and the number of chairs around it, there is disagreement on the single most critical aspect of any plan: funding.

When a property tax referendum put forth by the chambers of commerce and Enterprise Flagler last year failed before even making it to the ballot (the tax would have raised money to build industrial buildings that would presumably attract companies to Flagler), attention turned to imposing a sales tax for economic development. The county has two option: it could impose the tax by way of a unilateral, super-majority vote of the county commission. Or it could put the sales tax option to a popular referendum. Palm Coast and Flagler Beach are opposed to either taxes, especially if they’re imposed by a super-majority rather than by referendum. They’re also opposed to not having as much of their share of the money as state law allows, thus crumbling whatever the county’s hopes were to foster a common pot. If it manages to have such a common pot, it would be economically insignificant: enough to keep Enterprise Flagler going, but not much more.

The Enterprise Flagler referendum failed largely because it was poorly thought out and poorly presented, and because Enterprise Flagler’s credibility in the public’s—and many elected officials’—eyes is not strong. Shortly after that failure, Revels and Peterson spoke clearly against imposing a sales tax by super-majority, and Commissioner George Hanns leaned against doing so as well. (All three are up for reelection in 2012.) A popular referendum on a new tax with equally vague spending aims or vaguer returns on investment is not much more likely to fly this year.

The chambers of commerce, meanwhile, last week released a form letter, asking its members to sign it and send it in to elected officials. The overheated letter (“Our residents and businesses have suffered enough,” “without a collaborative approach and immediate action, our county is doomed,” “Flagler County is running out of time,” along with words like “despair,” “woes” and “seriously”) backs a “dedicated funding source” (code for a new tax) and puts the onus on elected officials to work out their differences.

Like every other voice in the pot, the chamber presents no original vision or concrete strategy beyond throwing money—taxpayer money, of course—at the problem, or longing for an economic development infrastructure similar to the one a secretive business-recruiting group in Volusia County set up as the “CEO Business Alliance,” a club of CEOs whose members contribute $100,000 a year each to have a place at the table. The group last week hired Kent Sharples, the recently richly disgraced Daytona State College president, to be its first president.

Without agreement on funding, strategy or structure, it’s difficult to see what economic development plan local governments could agree on, or what purpose this evening’s meeting will serve beyond a meet-and-greet of powerpoints.

The economic development summit is open to the public. It is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Emergency Operations Center building, behind the Government Services Building on Moody Blvd. (SR 100) in Bunnell.

6 Responses for “Economic Development Summit: Can Flagler’s 33 Elected Get It Up?”

  1. Jim Guines says:

    I am concerned that the school board will not get the 1/2 cent sale’s tax renewed with all of this confusion. There is going to be so much compitition for the tax dollar from the county and cities that the school board will be at a disadvantage.

  2. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Mr. Guines, the school board like others spending tax payer money will need to tighten its belt and go on a draconian diet.

    Again, I ask, where is the evidence that spending our money on “economic development” brings jobs or prosperity of any kind to any entity other than those on the receiving end of our tax dollars like Enterprise Flagler and other similar groups in the past.

    The evidence is on the other side. We are in negative territory. The money already spent is gone and not only haven’t things improved, they’ve become measurably worse.

    Glad that our host here at FlagerLive has noticed.

  3. palmcoaster says:

    I am all for Palm Coast and Flagler Beach against any further taxation for the mirage of promoting whatever new “incoming blunder disguised as a potential job creation entity” to our county, that actually so far has not showed promises complied no matter the tax payers funded incentive gifts, given to them.

    The lauded, promoted and letter solicited support for “economic development by the chamber of commerce” is the result of the loss of membership that sustains the always increasing number of administrative paid positions within. We should all see too many paid positions at very high rate for a chamber on a county with less than 89,000 residents now. Besides the fact of a local chamber that actually looses its members mainly to lack of support for its members and the undeniable outsourcing and even competition they endure from their local chamber for the membership fees (much higher in the last two years or so).

    To our county commissioners, city elected officials and their administrators I will respectfully remind them once more that we have 67 counties in Florida from which only 5 have a 7.5% sales tax, the rest in majority have 6, 6.25, 6.5 and 7 % sales tax. Also Flagler is the second highest unemployment county of the 67 after Hendry Cty in South Central Florida

    do any of the decision makers take this sad fact in account?.

    This important meeting regarding economic development should not be for our County Commissioners to impose additional ad valorem taxes without a referendum and even with it. The pleas of this chamber and special interest should be put after the pleas of the unemployed and barely making it day to day county tax payers. Most are not wealthy in Flagler County or make the salaries of the those government administrators or Vip’s Chamber elite demanding more taxes.

    As neither government on the county saved for rainy days when the times were good, now “we all need to do with less” is the time to stop outsourcing, demand the use of our local suppliers, labor and machine by any of our local government entities and let private enterprise to come to our local representatives and ask for incentives to relocate here. We do not need someone paid to do it for us now. Have our governments in this county advertise what we have here, as is less costly than creating another layer of beaurocracy with one more costly committee or agency (Enterprise style).

    The new elected Governor of Florida just fired the Florida Enterprise agency head…maybe a reason? Follow the example of the City of Palm Coast lately with the Marathon organized that brought over 400 runners plus their relatives and friends, many for the first time in PC and loving our surroundings. Such events promote our county and cities and are almost self sufficient via revenue. Promote more art events, cycling events, fairs, festivals and any other idea that will attract tourism as some visiting may decide they like it enough, to come and buy some of our vacant homes and bring their job creating businesses along. After all tourism is the number one resource of income in Florida.

    I look forward to commissioners Holland, McLaughin (campaign promises) and Hanns to join Revels and Peterson with their vote against any further taxation to fund whatever….as lately voters have shown good memory at the ballot box.

  4. SAW says:

    Lawabidingcitizen, You are right on target with your response, Enterprise Flagler, the County Chamber of Commerce & all their Affiliates, are way off base for sure.

    Just how many affiliates are there currently eating from the taxpayer trough, they appear to be growing daily, and are most often made up of greedy opportunists, making their own power plays ? What’s next, follow Volusia with our own ( Flagler County CEO Business Alliance) ?

    Beware also, when you hear the (old worn out term) it’s a “WIN WIN” situation coming from the mouth of a guy like Mr.Baxter, as then it is time to truly time to head for the hills. Remember, that was the over used term, that was partially responsible for getting our county into this mess in the first place.

    Before any new costs are placed on backs local taxpayers they must go before our residents by way of referendum, if that happens you can be can assured , that the result will not be a WIN WIN for the chamber, and it will go down in flames.

    It’s time for all of our officials countywide to get a grasp, to standup, and stop allowing the tail (chamber etc.) from wagging the dog.

  5. 91LX says:

    Am I the only one that finds the headline of the story funny??

  6. 91LX – nope, you are not.:-)

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