You might need medically-assisted math to figure out what and how the Flagler County Commission did today to get out of the budget-slashing hole it created for itself last week. Especially as some commissioners themselves did not seem to know why they were meeting again this morning, and didn’t want to be there.
They were meeting again because at what was supposed to be a routine, formal hearing last Wednesday to adopt a tax rate and budget the commission and the administration had worked on for the previous seven months, Commissioner Don O’Brien opted to scramble the process and the county’s long-term goals by proposing a last-minute tax rate reduction with a set of four conditions, each one further burdening the math and means of recalibrating the budget fairly between the county and the five constitutional officers it funds–the sheriff, the elections supervisor, the tax collector, the clerk of court and the property appraiser. (See: “In Latest Switch, County Will Cut Tax Rate, Fund Sheriff’s Full Request, and Take a $1.9 Million Hit on Budget.”)
O’Brien built a level of unfairness into his proposal: he wanted the Sheriff’s Office or any public safety-related county operations spared any budget cuts form the trimmed property tax rate, shifting that burden to others. He wanted to appropriate an extra $700,000 to the sheriff. And he wanted to preserve all raises. So the proportionate cuts from remaining departments and constitutional officers would be higher, especially for the elections supervisor and the clerk of court, who had no room for cuts. A clerk official said this morning three people would have to be fired to make the math work.
The O’Brien proposal–which Commissioners Greg Hansen and Joe Mullins supported–has not drawn much public interest because it is more of a political stunt than a change that would give property owners visible tax relief. A homeowner with a $200,000 house and a $50,000 homestead exemption paid $1,223 in county taxes this year. O’Brien’s proposal cuts that homeowner’s county tax bill by $15 for the year, or four gallons’ worth of gas at today’s prices.
O’Brien and fellow-commissioners like Mullins and Hansen wanted to be able to say that they reduced the tax rate, even though it doesn’t reduce the official tax increase under state law (a tax increase most homesteaded homeowners will not see).
But for county operations, that almost invisible tax cut, aggregated over tens of thousands of properties, adds up to real money paying for real county services, and requires the $1.9 million to $2.4 million reduction in the budget County Administrator Heidi Petito had prepared. So the symbolic move was more for their image than either for taxpayers’ benefit or for the health of county services: it was more self-promotion than sound budgeting, especially considering the timing of O’Brien’s stunt.
The county administration spent the last several days reconfiguring the budget to come up with options cutting it ahead of today’s meeting, for the commissioners’ approval. It had no room to maneuver past today. The county must advertise its property tax in a newspaper ahead of its final budget hearing. The deadline to meet the requirement is on Tuesday.
Astoundingly, Hansen and O’Brien weren’t interested in having a discussion today, or hearing the options the administrator had prepared, presumably because they did not want a public airing of the cuts they are causing, with them sitting at the dais.
“I think we’re done. I’m not sure what we’re doing or what we have to do today,” Hansen said at the beginning of the meeting.
“I’m sure the administrator had a presentation, and if she’s asking for direction from us, at least we want to give them that courtesy,” Commissioner Andy Dance said.
“Direction of what?” O’Brien said.
“Yeah, well, you know, we’re not supposed to be directing staff,” Joe Mullins, the chairman of the commission for a few more weeks, said, erroneously: it is the commission’s responsibility to set tax and budget policy.
O’Brien was not getting it. “I just want to know direction of what,” he said. “The question that we’re asking right now is, the millage rate and the trim notice. Is that not already a done issue?”
So finance director John Brower gently schooled him. “What you’re asked to do each year is adopt the millage rates and the budget. By changing the millage rates that obviously changes the budget,” Brower said, further explaining that the advertisement needs to show to the public “what our budget is.” It’s not just a tax rate number. That helped clarify things for the commissioner.
“That’s exactly what this is for,” Petito told the commissioners as she presented the different “funding gap scenarios.” In the end, commissioners adopted the option that will require the county to face a $1.9 million cut, using $600,000 from its reserves to close that gap, and making $1.3 million in service reductions. The $600,000 from the reserves is actually new, unexpected money, thanks to a glitch at the property appraiser’s office that effected the tax bills of new construction. When the property appraiser recalculated new construction in the last few weeks, it yielded an extra $600,000 in revenue to the county. But a $1.3 million cut remains.
It will entail cuts at the county library of $92,000 (7 percent of the library’s budget), including security, $152,000 in cuts at the county’s Health and Human Services Department, over half a million dollars in capital improvements, $56,000 in public transportation, and so on.
Nicole Buckles, the assistant chief operations officer at the clerk of court, put the dilemma this way: “If I award the COLA [cost of living] increase that was initially indicated by county administration, I will be forced to terminate three employees. If I completely remove the COLA increase from consideration, I don’t only have to terminate one employee.” The county will avoid that either if it dips into its reserves or if certain amounts of money unused in the budget of constitutionals, such as the sheriff, returns to the county budget.
Elections Supervisor Kaiti Lenhart took time from poll worker training to address the commission, her question underscoring the extent to which the commission’s derailing of the budget last week affected constitutionals and departments: “I just need you to give me a number of what my budget is,” Lenhart said. She was starting the year at a deficit, cutting training and other elements for employees. “We need to have fully trained and experienced” employees, she said, and “all the opportunities I can give my employees to be the best leaders in their jobs and do the best that they can as far as conducting elections for this county.”
None of the cuts necessitated by last week’s switch seemed to leave much of an impression on O’Brien, the author of the switch. Rather, he petulantly objected to the use of the word “cut,” saying it was a reduction in the budget from a planned increase. He is right. But Commissioner Dave Sullivan noted that inflation has neutralized O’Brien’s argument. And O’Brien was neglecting to mention his own conditions on his Wednesday motion, which exacerbated the administration’s difficulties in rewriting the budget.
“None of this is optimal for anybody,” Commissioner Andy Dance said. “We spent seven months working on a budget only for it to be blown up at the last minute. So here we are trying to make things work.” He was particularly struck by the cut to public transportation. “The people that rely on transportation, I just feel that’s really tough to continue to keep that position open. But that’s a hard one to explain to the public.” The cuts entail keeping positions frozen rather than firing people.
“As you move forward, what is it going to look like next year? What is it going to look like the following year?” Petito cautioned commissioners. “That’s why I think it’s important that we have a budget strategy meeting starting in November, looking at alternative revenue sources, looking at different ways and opportunities to become more effective and efficient.” The administrator betrayed notable frustration with the message the commission was sending: that its own strategic plan–its goals–“is worthless, it’s going to sit on a shelf and collect dust, it’s not going to do anything.” It was a devastating statement, delivered in Petito’s disarmingly deadpan voice.
“The one thing that comes to mind here is everybody’s feeling the pain except the sheriff,” Hansen said in one of the more remarkable statements of the morning: Hansen had been among the three-commissioner majority approving exactly that exemption for the sheriff (which the sheriff had n oit asked for to the extent that the O’Brien-Hansen-Mullins vote enabled). “And I would encourage the sheriff over the next few months to really take a hard look at your budget. And maybe you can cut a Mustang or cut an unmarked vehicle or cut some things like that to help us.” In fact, through yet more complicated budgetary maneuverings, the sheriff, the supervisor of elections and the clerk of court all may be contributing some dollars to the county’s bottom line in budgeted amounts they may not end up spending. The sheriff cited about $150,000, possibly more. Lenhart’s office will be giving back about $100,000.
The final outcome was a haze of recalculations, bottoming out to a $1.3 million cut to the county’s budget and possibly limiting cuts at the elections supervisor’s office and the clerk of court’s operations. But much of that will become clearer only as the budget year gets under way: as with so much else resulting from commissioners’ last-minute improvisations, the consequences have yet to be fully vetted.
County Administrator Heidi Petito’s Presentation Monday Morning (See previous presentations here and here):FY23 Budget Workshop 09122022