Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin was home: “Good morning fellow-Realtors, it’s a pleasure to be back here again,” Alfin told an audience of 55 at this morning’s annual Meet the Mayors breakfast, arranged every year by the Flagler County Association of Realtors at their building in Bunnell.
Alfin is a Realtor, and spoke like one today, answering questions from the floor clearly written by fellow-Realtors. (The association says it has 1,600 members, which would make it the single-largest dues-paying organization in the county.) Naturally, the members wanted to know how governments would help them.
“What is your mindset or strategy for the upcoming year to help the real estate market, and will this strategy include more jobs in Palm Coast?” went one question.
“So the answer is yes,” Alfin said, his voice always the most booming among the five elected officials on the panel, and almost as assertive as that of Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston. “The city within its current city limits has 27,000 additional unimproved acres of land or another 10,000 acres of land, which would naturally annex in to the city of Palm Coast for utility purposes. So this initiative I’m promoting would double the geographic footprint of the city of Palm Coast.”
Alfin also spoke of what has become a favorite refrain of his recent appearances: “Westward expansion–I like to call it the frontier,” he said. That’s a reference to Palm Coast growth sprawling over U.S. 1, as it has started to do: the city limits were expanded last decade to include vast swaths of that region, swaths already approved as developments of regional impacts. Two such DRIs–Neoga Lakes and Old Brick Township–would add 12,000 homes and 3.15 million square feet of commercial space between them alone. (See: “In a Shift, and Despite Glut, State Approves 5,000-Home Palm Coast Development.”
Alfin said the city has an opportunity to “master-plan” that growth, and to carry it out as “managed growth, and green protected growth,” adding: “Within the current city limits and most of the county, there is no opportunity to master plan from scratch. However, this initiative provides it and we are only one of four large swaths of land left on the entire east side of Florida that presents this opportunity. We have a star alignment at the moment. We have cooperation from Tallahassee, from the county commission, from our municipal partners. So together I think we will enjoy becoming a model for all of Florida, to look at.”
That got the room applauding. Alfin also said the sort of things that in a different age might have gotten Bunnell and Flagler Beach on the defensive–and might still, if more diplomatically: “We no longer considered the municipal boundaries as important as once was thought,” Alfin said. “We now work together as a group in order to benefit all the residents of Flagler County.” It was a very Palm Coast sort of statement that would scarcely be uttered by officials in other cities: Bunnell, Flagler Beach and Beverly Beach still thrive on identities that depend on those borders.
The questions were heavily weighed toward Alfin and County Commissioner Greg Hansen, reflecting the two bigger governments at the table, and leaving Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson, Johnston and Beverly Beach Mayor Steve Emmett more often sitting back to hear Hansen and Alfin answer question after question. The session was a window into Realtors’ concerns, and a reflection of recent developments on local government boards, with controversies over taxes, salary increases (in Palm Coast) and beach renourishment in Flagler Beach drawing out several questions.
“Do you support further budget cuts or is it too late to make any changes?” Hansen was asked (the questions were anonymous.)
“It’s too late,” Hansen said. “We made our final decision Monday.” The County Commission provoked a small upheaval this month when it upended its own administration’s budget at the last minute with a symbolic cut in the tax rate that won’t affect tax bills by more than a few dollars, but will reduce the county budget by $1.3 million.
“Do you support 24/7 helicopter service?” went another question, a reference to the county’s emergency helicopter, which operations 12 hours a day when it’s in service, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“Well that’s a wish,” Hansen said. “Sure, I’d like to have that, but there’s no way in hell we can afford it.” Hansen was not being accurate: the commission has decided not to make that a priority, though it could if it decided to. But it would be expensive. That would require a better helicopter, another pilot and another maintenance person, Hansen said.
Alfin was asked a similar question on taxes. He said the tax rate last year was moved halfway back to what’s considered the rolled back rate (actually, it was cut more than that, by about two-thirds of the way there: The rolled back rate was $4.4593 per $1,000 in taxable value. The city administration had proposed 4.6989, the same rate adopted in 2021. The council adopted a rate of 4.61). The decision this year is to keep it flat to catch up on needed spending. “If you’re asking me if I think there’ll be a change, no, I think that we will adhere to last year’s millage rate,” Alfin said.
Realtors have been especially interested in the tax rate this year because property valuations have sent the value of homes skyrocketing (the median price of a home in Flagler was $400,000 in early summer. It has dropped a notch since.) That has not affected the overwhelming majority of homeowners. The misleading grandstanding of politicians like Palm Coast Councilman Ed Danko aside (he’s beating the drums of a tax increase to help Alan Lowe in his election bid for a council seat), homeowners, including Danko, will barely see their tax bills budge this year. But out-of-state newcomers to the county will see big property tax bills because they are not yet enjoying the protection of the state’s Save Our Homes cap on property tax increases.
Alfin told the Realtors that the city could not afford to forego new revenue generated by the improving valuations, which increased at a rate unseen in 16 years. “Over the years, quite frankly, the roadways in particular have been neglected,” Alfin said, “and I think it’s been made clear that when you kick that can down the road, it just doesn’t push that expense a little bit forward. It’s almost a logarithmic acceleration in the expense as that roadway begins to decay and deteriorate faster. So with this year’s millage being held the same, it does generate additional tax dollars.”
Emmett, the Beverly Beach mayor, said what none of the other governments sitting to his left and right could say: Beverly Beach once again lowered its tax rate this year. It didn’t just lower it. It went to the rolled-back rate, in effect ensuring that Beverly Beach would be the only local government not to have a tax increase this year. But Emmett was earnest enough to acknowledge what makes that possible. “We can do that because we’re a small town, we don’t have a big infrastructure, we rely on the county and municipalities that are sitting here to help us with certain things when things go wrong,” he said. Beverly Beach had enough revenue to afford three gifts to three local public safety agencies, totaling $30,000 this year.
Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson had to balance some of the more difficult times the city went through this year with a few bright spots. She spoke of the death of one of Bunnell’s police officers, Sgt. Dominic Guida, and having to move out of the City Hall complex it had occupied to much celebration only a few years ago, again because of water leaks (Bunnell had moved out of its previous City Hall, the coquina building, for the same reason). But the city is close to building a new, permanent city hall off Commerce Parkway. Bunnell had 877 Building Permits and saw 110 new homes and 10 new commercial buildings go up. “That pales [compared] to Palm Coast but we’re proud of our numbers,” Robinson said.
In Flagler Beach, Mayor Suzie Johnston, who noted the coming centennial of the city, spoke of infrastructure challenges (” we have even terracotta pipes underneath the street”), the $15 million plan to rebuild the sewer plant, the coming construction of a new concrete pier, of a new hotel downtown, and of course the dune reconstruction project on 2.6 miles of city beaches, that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to undertake, under county administrative management. Safe to say> Flagler Beach has rarely seen that much big-ticket activity in its hundred years.
While the session gave each elected official ample opportunities to market their governments with gloss, the Realtors were still interested in answers to realities closer to the ground. “Mr. Hanson, how are we going to support our service industry workers that don’t make enough money to live in our community?” one asked.
“I’m not responsible for their paychecks,” Hansen replied with surprising coldness. “So look to restaurant owners, and I’ve met with several on ways to attract and keep restaurant workers, to include some portable health benefit package.” He then spoke of the unhappy prospects ahead for affordable housing in stark terms: “We passed an ordinance to encourage workforce type housing, it’s been in effect for over a year. No developer has taken us up on it yet. I think in the current housing market, the developers are building what will sell and will sell for a lot of money. And so I don’t think that affordable housing is in the near future anywhere in our county.”
Toward the end of the hour-long Q&A, the five panelists were asked to give themselves a letter grade reflecting how they saw their own performance as elected officials.
Hansen immediately gave himself an A with no additional explanation, the sort of grade that revealed more tone-deafness than realism: he was just re-elected, but with just 44 percent of the vote in a three-way race. The 12,460 votes he got represent just 13 percent of Flagler County’s registered voters–three times fewer than what he got last time. When he won election four years ago, he took 64 percent of the vote and 39 percent percent of all registered voters. Clearly, voters are not giving him an A.
Emmett also gave himself “100 percent,” and had no reason not to: no one even challenges him at election time. Robinson was more realistic. She said the hiring of Alvin Jackson as city manager several years ago now enables her to give herself a B-plus. Johnston said she was a year and a half into her term, “so basically I would be in kindergarten at this point. And there’s always room for improvement when you’re in a new position. I would give myself a B,” she said.
Alfin somewhat punted, giving himself a “G” for guts. The sentiment was sincere, and accurate: no one can blame Alfin for not sticking by his convictions and adapting rather than reversing course, despite harsh criticism he sustained after pushing for (and getting) a huge pay increase for council members and the mayor, and his more recent stumble when justifying the city’s budget–an error of form rather than substance, when he used the cartoon character Garfield to make his point. But even among friends, the Realtors would likely have preferred a more direct answer to the question.
So he provided it afterward when asked by a reporter: “I’m a goal-oriented person, so I would say up to this point, I would favor myself a B-minus, so that gives me plenty of room to improve.” He added: “I know I’ve worked hard to get me to above average, but I’m not willing to go beyond that because there’s lots more to conquer and lots to learn.”