In a surprise 3-2 vote–surprising as much for the way the vote broke down as for its outcome–the Flagler County Commission this afternoon resisted Sheriff Rick Staly’s request for an additional $700,000, opting instead to hope for “savings” during the coming year, either on the sheriff’s side or on the county’s side of the ledger, that could fill that gap.
The county and the sheriff for weeks have been stalemated over a budget gap of between $700,000 and $1.3 million, depending on how the budget was calculated. Last week the sheriff made a plea in person, backed by a roomful of deputies, sheriff’s employees and their families whom the sheriff had urged to be there, to provide the remaining of the sheriff’s budget request in addition to a $4.5 million increase he will be getting.
The commission appeared willing, and directed County Administrator Heidi Petito to prepare options to get there by today’s workshop, which had been scheduled a day after the primary election to remove the political element from the equation.
It may have done just that, if not to the sheriff’s benefit: Commissioners Dave Sullivan, Andy Dance and Joe Mullins voted to resist the sheriff’s request for now, pending vague savings ahead. They also, in the same motion, which Sullivan proposed, voted to keep next year’s property tax rate flat, which will equate to a roughly 14 percent tax increase for non-homesteaded properties.
Sullivan accepted a Dance amendment to direct the administrator to reach a deal with the sheriff on seeking and keeping any savings he manages through his own budget, the way other constitutional officers do. “If we do the same thing with the other constitutionals,” Dance said, “let’s get into a handshake agreement with the sheriff on the savings and returning it to him, which would in theory offset the $700,000.”
Commissioners Donald O’Brien and Greg Hansen voted against the motion. Hansen called it “mushy.” O’Brien was against adopting a tax rate that would not provide at least a symbolic cut. The commission will not adopt the official tax rate until September. Today’s vote suggests O’Brien will oppose it then, too, thus voting against the budget to be adopted. He will have that luxury, knowing that a majority of commissioners will adopt the budget and the new tax rate.
Mullins’s vote was the surprise: trying to repair self-inflicted damage from his own disrespectful and insulting encounters with Florida Highway Patrol troopers in recent weeks, he’d attempted to portray himself as the sheriff’s biggest supporter ahead of yesterday’s election. Hours after a lopsided loss at the polls, looking grim and diminished behind the dais, Mullins cast what proved to be the deciding vote against the sheriff’s request, Mullins’s fealty abrogated.
Staly was in the audience, and the room was again packed despite the 1 p.m. midweek timing of the meeting. But this time it was not just a sea of green, but a red sea on one side, representing a mass of Flagler County Fire Rescue firefighters, EMTs and employees, and sheriff’s deputies and employees on the other. The firefighters and EMTs were there to remind the commission that their salaries and their needs counted as well.
Staly had opened that door last week when he mentioned that the county should pay deputies as much as it paid firefighters–$51,000. The figure was only partially correct. Petito specified at the meeting that firefighters are not synonymous with paramedics, nor is their pay, though it’s the county’s goal to move all firefighters to firefighter-paramedics. Only firefighter-paramedics start at $51,000, while firefighters who are not yet paramedics start at $41,000. (Most of the department’s personnel are firefighter-paramedics.)
Jason Powell, Flagler County Fire Rescue’s union leader, was blunt as he addressed the commission: “I don’t want this to turn into an us versus them situation because we support and love our brothers and sisters in green. But you need to stop giving into the sheriff when it comes to his wants and needs for more money. Daily as firefighters we live and work in our fire stations that are less than adequate. Some were built in the right of way, not even on a parcel of land. They are prone to flooding and had to have to be repaired twice due to mold. We still use them.” He said none of the stations meet Florida building code, and leave firefighters vulnerable to carcinogens. He spoke of the needs for new engines, new ambulances, the inevitable overtime.
“We suffer from the same turnover as the sheriff’s office,” he said, before administering a backhanded slap on the commissioners: “Because we don’t have a vocal politician as our advocate and boss demanding more money, we have an appointed boss and the five of you elected officials, the advocate for the fire department and the rest of the county departments. So before you decide to give the sheriff’s office more money, why don’t you start taking care of your employees on the board side? When will you start advocating for them and making sure they have the necessary tools to do their jobs.”
The Sheriff’s Chris Ragazzo, speaking as a representative of the deputies’ union, responded: “I too don’t want it to become an us versus anybody. I was a firefighter. I support firefighters. I think everybody deserves the opportunity to get the best of everything. But even after we got significant raises last couple of years, we’re still losing men and women to surrounding agencies. We’re not able to currently keep and maintain those that we need. We’re going to become a training stomping grounds. We’re going to hire them or we’re going to train them and they’re going to move on.” He urged the commission to find a solution, whether through the tax rate or other means.
Other than a stark, point-by-point outline of the county’s budget, pressures and limitations by Petito, those rank and file responders proved to have the most compelling arguments of the day, leaving the elected scrambling for a way through the administrator’s three options.
Petito framed the county budget within the county’s strategic plan, or long-term goals. She acknowledged rising tax revenue, but said the increase “has largely been negated due to the tremendous increases in operating costs,” while the county is taking measures in case of a recession. The budget, she said, “is fair” and takes in accounts “needs” ahead of “wants.” She noted that the county is not adequately staffed for its maintenance needs, the transportation department is understaffed because of low pay, and 24 employees have left for better salaries elsewhere.
Petito was echoing the same issues the sheriff had earlier this month, when he made the case for a higher budget. The county has 22 unfunded positions–$8.8 million–half of them for public safety. “We’re unable to do it,” Petito said. But as she accumulated the county’s list of unfunded needs, from sea rise protection to stormwater plans to dunes and beach management, her message was clear: every un-budgeted dollar that goes to the sheriff is a dollar subtracted from those unfunded needs.
The county got a $2.53 million increase in its expected revenue in June, when it got the final taxable value assessments, raising the county’s added revenue to $9 million. Almost half that revenue–$4.31 million–would go to salaries, health insurance and other benefits and retirement costs, and $2 million would go to reserves. The salary increases include those going to firefighters and EMTs. The rest would be parceled out between different needs, from building a reserve for the next emergency helicopter purchase ($250,000), to operating increases, and so on.
The sheriff is opting to abandon the county’s self-insured health plan. The county had planned to expand the employee health clinic at a cost of $428,000. The county no longer plans to do that. But other costs have eaten up what would have been that saving, from fuel increases to legally required minimum wage increases.
Then Petito, without changing tone, segued into what she portrayed as substantial county subsidies of the sheriff’s costs that never appear in the sheriffs’s budget: “An issue came up at the last meeting, it was mentioned that we carry a little over $2 million riding through the board side for items that are in support of our law enforcement,” she said. “This is a detailed breakdown of things that we would like to transfer back over to the sheriff.”
“These are the items that directly relate to his operation. This would be the utility costs for your water, sewer, your natural gas, your electricity, fleet repairs, which are currently covered under an interlocal agreement,” the administrator continued. And those costs, currently shouldered, or absorbed, by the county, were estimated at $1.52 million, Petito said. “It’s not that he’s unhappy with the service but I think that handing that money over to him provides more accountability at that level.” That includes IT services of nearly $700,000, utility costs of $200,000, and fleet repairs of $581,000.
She then shifted to the $40 million in “unfunded capital projects.” The county has $67 million in reserves, but only $6.2 million unrestricted. The rest can’t be tapped whenever the county has unexpected needs.
The county is operating on an overall $224 million budget, $133 million of it in the general fund (which pays for the sheriff’s office and other constitutional officers.) Public safety takes up $53.9 million of that, or about half the budget. Of that, 64 percent goes to the sheriff, 30 percent goes to Flagler County Fire Rescue. That funding does not include an additional $3 million for the sheriff’s jail, from sales tax revenue.
Petito presented three option. Option One would leave the sheriff $700,000 short of what he’s asking for, and the county $9 million short of what the administration would want. The Clerk of Court and the Supervisor of elections would also have over $350,000 in needs unfunded between them. For that option, the tax rate would have to remain flat.
Option Two would reduce the tax rate minimally, but would widen the sheriff’s budget gap to $922,000 and add slightly to the gap with the Clerk of Court. Option Three would again go with a flat tax rate, would fully fund the sheriff’s request, but that would put the responsibility of the $700,000 gap on the county, which would have to pare its own budget to make up the difference. “So really the only one that would be taking a true deficit on this option would be the Board of County Commission, which would be a $700,000 reduction in our budget for next year,” Petito said before turning the matter over to the commission.
“Well, if we take the $700,000, where are we going to take that? There’s no free lunch here,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said.
“You’d have to cut it from your reserves,” Petito said, “unless you decided to cut programs or some other funding at the program level,” making it a reduction in services.
“Taking from the reserves for a recurring cost is not prudent. Financially it’s not fiscally sound policy,” Commissioner Andy Dance said, pointing out a cardinal rule of budgeting that Hansen then explained: “If we do that, that just means next year we have to do it again. And then the year after that, and the year after that.”
“It would be recurring at that point,” Petito said.
Yet Hansen, in a contradiction, was opposed to the motion that would prevent a raid on reserves. If he was aiming for a tax rate reduction, a reduction of a tenth of a mil would have resulted in a $1 million “reduction in services,” according to the administrator, in addition to the sheriff’s $700,000 gap.
Sullivan proposed that the county adopt a tax rate equal next year and leave the sheriff $700,000 short, with the proviso that during the year, the county–or the sheriff–could find revenue that would fill that gap, whether through the county’s or the sheriff’s means. The money isn’t a guarantee, but a possibility.
“I find it amazing that we can’t find millage savings on the back of an 18 percent property value increase,” Dance said. Dance had taken the position that he would not accept a flat millage rate: he wanted some form of decrease in the rate, “even though it’s ceremonial.” And he expected all parties, all departments, including constitutionals, to have to do their share. “The next decision we make next year or two years down the road is going to be significantly worse. And that’s what I fear,” Dance said.
O’Brien had “philosophical problems” with Petito’s presentation and objected to Sullivan’s motion: the county was adding $9 million in revenue. The county delivered services this current year for an amount without those $9 million. “I don’t look at it like we’re at a bare bones budget here and we have to go into reserves for $900,000 or $700,000 to fund the sheriff’s request,” he said. (The $9 million increase in revenue awards the sheriff half that amount.)
He said he wanted a slight tax rate decrease of a tenth of a mil, that the sheriff should get an extra $900,000 he’s asking for, and that the county should absorb the cost.
That would grant the sheriff $5 million in additional revenue, Dance said. “At what point is it fair to all the constitutionals that if we if we reduce it, we’re not making the other constitutionals whole? And is it always us that’s playing catch up?”
Pressing for the first option, he would compromise this year: stay at a flat tax rate, showing himself–ever the pragmatist–willing to compromise with his own prior commitment to lower the tax rate by a tenth. Meanwhile the county could keep working with constitutionals, especially the sheriff, to find ways to keep the county from absorbing additional costs.
Last week, Dance was a voice in the wilderness on the commission, as he had been since his election, with a block of votes, especially the O’Brien-Sullivan-Mullins axis, usually arrayed against him. Today, he was squarely in a majority that bore his stamp, and that may herald the realignment of a commission that will likely soon replace Mullins with a Dance ally.