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.
- Palm Coast Largely Rejects County’s Economic Development Track, Including New Tax
- Seeking “One Voice” At Countywide Economic Summit, Commissioners Can’t Agree On Theirs
- For Jobless Flagler, 3 Economic Development Plans But Little Direction or Unity
- Flagler Unemployment Seesaws to 15.7%, Florida’s Rate Unchanged at 12%
- “Economic Development” Tax Dies: Enterprise Flagler Wants It Removed from the Ballot
- Toby Tobin: Economic Development as Groundhog Day
- The Chambers’ Letter to Elected Officials
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.