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Uncertainty Over: Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts Makes His Re-Election Bid Official

| June 23, 2011

palm coast mayor jon netts reelection 2011

Palm Coast's Éminence Netts, facing a brewing tea party. (© FlaglerLive)

Jon Netts will run for re-election as mayor of Palm Coast. He made it official today, after months of uncertainty, making the coming mayoral race the second-most contested in the city’s brief history. (Nine people ran in the inaugural mayor’s race in 1999). The three other candidates are Joe Cunnane, Charlie Ericksen Jr., and Ray Mimami. Others still have time to join.

The field couldn’t represent a sharper generational divide. Netts and Ericksen were born just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Cunnane was born during FDR’s first term. Mimami, whose candidacy is more whimsical than convincing, was in elementary school when Netts, who’s been on the Palm Coast City Council for 10 years, first won the District 2 seat, in 2011. He defeated Jerry Full with 56 percent of the vote. Netts won re-election unopposed in 2005, and won the 2007 mayoral race with 63 percent of the vote, defeating Victor Good (27 percent) and Cunnane (10 percent).

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Netts is among the more astute politicians and nimblest minds in local government, making him a formidable opponent in any setting. The deference he commands on the council is second only to that of City Manager Jim Landon. The respect he commands among elected officials is second to none: no local elected board has a mind as versatile and as broadly fluent on local and regional issues, though this year he’s appeared off-stride on several issues on which he’s had to recalibrate: a new city hall, stormwater fees, Palm Coast’s direct involvement with the county in economic development, and one issue he’s still trying to calibrate in the face of one more dire budget year: taxes. Opponents are sensing vulnerabilities, and Netts himself was at times hesitant to join the race.

Now that he has, his abilities to turn the tables as deftly as he can a phrase were on display when he addressed the matter of being the longest-serving member of the council running again in a time of flux, when “change” is every election’s manifesto: “To say that I don’t represent change is ridiculous,” Netts said on Thursday. “Of course I represent change. Life is change. I’m different than I was 10 years ago. So are you. We are growing, we are maturing. There’s going to be change. The issue is not whether you’re for change or against change. The issue is, can you manage change.”

Has he? He answered the question in the context of another—about one of his opponents, Ericksen, who’s projecting himself as the fiscal conservative against an incumbent whose establishment Republican credentials are not in doubt. But in the battle for the influential tea party vote, Ericksen is positioning himself as the more conservative choice.

“What does fiscal conservatism mean?” Netts asks. “I’m willing to stand on my record. Palm Coast, second-lowest tax rate for a city our size. Now, that says something. The truth of the pudding is in the eating. I’ve had four years and people can evaluate what we’ve done in four years. Are we, if not better off, are we at least as good or have we been backsliding? It’s easy to say you’re a fiscal conservative. Talk is cheap.”

There has been backsliding even by the most objective measures. The city is also the hub of the county with the highest unemployment rate in the state. It has some of the highest foreclosure and vacancy rates in the state (and the country). Commercial spreads, from St. Joe’s Plaza to Palm Harbor to European Village to Roma Court to Town Center to City Market Place (the city’s own home) are either ghost-like, anemic or in foreclosure. Poverty is rising. Population growth has stalled, younger families are no longer moving in (judging from the school district’s declining enrollment). And the city’s one big deal with an economic developer—Palm Coast Data, which promised three years ago to increase its ranks by 700—never panned out. The Washington Post twice in the last year (the second time just this month), chose Palm Coast as a prism of the national economy’s worst consequences. Netts was quoted in both.

Most of those problems are far larger than Palm Coast, even if the city’s binge of overdevelopment accentuated them. Still, Netts says, the city has taken steps to deal with the problem. He points to the federally funded neighborhood stabilization program, which enables cities and counties to subsidize the recovery of homes stressed by the housing crash and put homeowners back in them, with conditions. He points to the city’s just-opened Business Assistance Center (13 counseling sessions last week), and again, despite the recession, to the city’s enduringly low property tax rate. He points to the calculation that about 40 percent of the unemployed in Flagler held jobs in surrounding counties, but file for unemployment locally, jacking up the local rate.

And he points to what he’s doing as mayor to ensure that Palm Coast and the county have a place at the table in regional economic development and transportation matters. He conducted this interview, in fact, while driving to a meeting of the Regional Community Institute of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville. “It’s more important than ever that Palm Coast and Flagler County have a voice, have a place at the table, with these organizations,” Netts said. “I think I have the expertise, I think I’ve got the experience, I think I’ve got the recognition from within this region to do an effective job.”

The election will also be fought over immediate matters: jobs, quality of life, experience, and the perennial booby-trap of so many contemporary elections, with trip-wires connected less to reality than to ideology: taxes. The tea party’s candidate questionnaire, for example, asks whether the candidate is willing to freeze the city’s property tax rate at $3.5 per $1,000 in taxable value.

“It’s a realistic question,” Netts says. “What you’re looking for a is a realistic answer. You can only mix so much sawdust in with the horse’s oats. There clearly are essential services that must not be cut. I don’t know if you heard Ray Britt’s comments at the end of the meeting.” Britt is the city’s finance director. “He said, do the wild fires burn less intensely because there is a recession? No, they don’t. Do the criminals take a day off because the economy is worse than it was once? In fact many people would argue that there is more criminal behavior. Law enforcement has to be funded.” (Actually, crime has been falling, in Flagler County and across the nation, despite the severe recession.)

Netts continued: “Are there things that can be cut? Of course. But those become decisions for city council as they respond to their residents.”

He’s asked whether the tax rate can remain the same for a third successive year, a notion Netts himself said was extremely unlikely, last year, when he imagined one more year of falling valuations. “It’s hard to tell because we don’t have a full analysis yet, we haven’t gotten down to the department level,” Netts said. Unlike the county or the school board, the city keeps its detailed budget analyses cloaked until two usually cursive budget workshops later in the summer, preventing the public from having its own analytical look. County commissioners go over their budgets line by line. City council members have been satisfied to watch a power point, and Netts hasn’t pressed for more transparency. Britt, the finance director, has been providing a series of explanatory powerpoints about the budget over the last few council meetings, but the focus is on process, terms and organization, not on who’s making how much, what’s costing most, where the deficits, loans and long-term liabilities are.

“I would argue that through this current fiscal year there has not been any substantial reduction in service. I do not think you can reduce government expenditure anymore without cuts in service,” Netts said. “My goal is to maintain level spending. We have cut spending in the last two years. I think at this point if we can maintain level spending, we’ll be able to survive. The question is, it’s easy to say you should cut more. But nobody wants to affect themselves personally. If I’ve paved your road already you’re perfectly happy to cut road repavement, just don’t cut my road out of the repavement. It’s a question of realistically looking at what has to be done to maintain the infrastructure, and where there are the amenities that you can reasonably cut. Keeping in mind that when you talk about property taxes, 17 cents of every dollar goes to the city of Palm Coast–17 cents out of a dollar. So if you’re looking for significant cuts out of your taxes, 80 percent or more has got to come from somewhere else. We only control 17 percent of your tax bill.”

Netts’s goal in coming years is to maintain the city’s infrastructure, “providing for growth in the entrepreneurial, small business sector, trying to facilitate that component to diversify our tax rate.”

Netts defended his close association with Landon, the city manager (whose pay is also a sticking point on those candidate questionnaires), a relationship that at times makes Landon appear to be leading the council rather than the other way around. “The city manager does almost nothing without the direction of city council,” Netts said. “Every council member meets with the city manager individually. I think the city manager has a very good finger on the pulse of city council. He does what we direct him to do. He didn’t create Prosperity 2021 out of a blank piece of paper. We gave him direction, we gave him guidance, this is what we want to do. I think the city manager has a very good relationship with the council, he understands our wishes, he understands the direction we want to go, and he uses his best efforts to move us in that direction.”

Netts said his biggest strength as mayor is “the ability to understand the law of unintended consequences. The ability to plan not only for tomorrow, but for 10 years from tomorrow. Having been through recessions before in local government–there are really no new issues in government. You change the names, you change the numbers a little bit, but the issues remain pretty much the same. I think bringing experience to the table, bringing respect from other people to the table, I think I’m a known quantity within this part of Florida.”

“What are my vulnerabilities?” Netts paused. “The inability to curry political favor. The inability to take the easy way out. My father used to tell me when I was a little kind, I’ve told this to 100 people, he used to grab me by the shoulder and say, Jon, the man who stands for nothing falls for everything.”

17 Responses for “Uncertainty Over: Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts Makes His Re-Election Bid Official”

  1. lawabidingcitizen says:

    no local elected board has a mind as versatile and as broadly fluent on local and regional issues…

    Translation: Netts is reliably lefty.

  2. Will says:

    I’ve heard Mayor Netts explain various government issues in a variety of venues in the last few years, and I have to say that he grasps the broad and subtle points of the matters equally well. He can crystalize a discussion to help people understand difficult issues and lead people toward action to get things done. A little while ago Florida Trend magazine named Mayor Netts a man to watch. They were right.

    Good interview!

  3. mara says:

    Mayor Netts is no dummy–he understands what is at stake here is not about “taking sides”, particularly ideological sides, as people who post to this forum shovel into the comments day in and day out.

    This is about what is best for this city–we need a government in order to maintain a stable society. That government runs on tax revenues. At least one of Netts’ opponents seems to think we don’t need a government OR a society, so we should just cut all taxes, period.

    It’ll be a cold day in hell before I vote for more “drowning government in the bathtub” conservative wannabes. That’s a con the people of this country have been falling for since 1981, and it needs to stop.

  4. Bill McGuire says:

    What is the City Manager’s annual salary and perk package (how much did Palm Coast pay him in total last year)? How much has the city attorney and his firm been compensated last year? Does the city attorney live in Palm Coast and if not, why not? These are questions that citizens all over the county seem to be asking.

  5. Jack Howell says:

    Jon has given a lot to the people of Palm Coast. And, yes he has changed over the years. That said, the City of Palm Coast needs fresh ideas from new blood. Jon has served ten years in office. As with most politicals I see him flip floping his position on issues he was pushing hard before…New City Hall! Now that it is election time, he sees no immediate need for a new city hall. How much of the tax payers money has already been spent on the planning for the new facility. Love to see those figures. My speculation that if he was to be reelected, his termt would be short lived. I say that because I see him running for a County Commission Seat next year. Nonetheless, we need new leadership. Fact is, Jon is stale, complacent and needs to move on.

    Charlie Ericksen is that breath of freshness. Charlie is also the one guy that can put Jim Landon in his place as opposed to the other council members! Charlie is well versed in every polotical issue within the county not just Palm Coast. He is also well versed with the city budget. Get to know him and you will see that he is the candidate that is the most qualified to become our Mayor.

    Joe Cunnane is a nice guy. He is not electable as proven by his past attempts running for Palm Coast mayor. Don’t waste your vote on Joe.

  6. mara says:

    We need a good, solid breakdown of each of these candidates, and what policies exactly, that they stand for.

    I’m guessing we can count on Flaglerlive to be a little more discerning about it than the average newsjournal fluff (where you know immediately by reading the bios of each candidate, exactly who the bio writer would vote for). I’d sure like to read something like that here, without seeing opinion-buzzwords like “unelectable”. That’s something that is up to each and every voter to decide for themselves….

  7. Yogi says:

    If you think you are better off than four years ago then vote for John Netts. We need government and fairness. Just we need less of one and more of the other. John reminds me of the guy that’s stuck on the fence. Being A guy, I know how much that can hurt. In 1998 Flagler county was governed on tens of millions, now we are governed for hundreds of millions in the city and the county thanks to people like John Netts. He has been there most of the time. Go John… boy run. 8-)…

  8. elaygee says:

    I thought you had to be a living person to run for office? Generalissimo Netts is still dead, isn’t he?

  9. "Millie" the Manatee says:

    Speaking from my home in the ICW, I would like to say that neither myself, my family, or any of my fellow manatees, can support Mayor Netts for re-election, or for that matter, any of the other county officials that do not support us.

    Mr. Mayor, as you and other elected officials are well aware, unlike the boating industry, and other special interests that support you, we your local manatees have few that speak on our behalf.

    We would ask you this, why are we given such a low priority when it comes to protecting both us and the place in which we live ? All we hear throughout our county of late, is economic development, what ever happened to environmental protection ?

    As most know we are “gentle” creatures that live together as families, we do not hurt anyone, we are special creatures which bring pleasure to many.

    All we ask, is for some much needed help from you guys, a fair shake let us say, but you turn your backs on us simply because you do not really know us, and of course we have no power, no builder, or boater lobby to help us.

    You should realize, that our home on the ICW, has been under constant attack for years, from poorly planned development, pollution run off, erosion and a diminishing food source, a deadly combination for us, when an always increasing number of larger more powerful boats are thrown into that mix.

    This, is also combined with constant blunt trauma coming from these fast moving boats, boats which also leave deep propeller scars from head to tail on many of us. Not to mention the colder winters we must now endure,such as the winters of 2009 and 2010 when “cold stress” caused catastrophic numbers of us to perish.

    No Mr. Mayor, we can not cast any votes for you, as we are still struggling out here to survive and to raise our families on the ICW. One has to wonder how you, and the other elected officials who all but disregard us, would like your families to have live under such conditions on a daily basis.

    Remember, we were here long before you arrived on the scene, so the very least you should do, is to make sure that we too are able to survive for future generations to enjoy, even though you may consider us a low priority.

    Everything, should not be prioritized by the $ Dollar $ amount attached.

    Thanks Millie & friends

  10. palmcoaster says:

    Hi Millie I totally agree with you. Also was requested/suggested in the no distant past from our city government to place signs regarding being a ” Warning Wildlife Crossing” both East and West lanes of Palm Coast Parkway from Clubhouse Drive to the new Panther Sculpture corner with Palm Harbor Pkwy due to the fatalities aka “road kill” all along the center media Linear Park there and to no avail.
    That area have become a wildlife trap by fast vehicles between both Palm Coast Parkway’s lanes, for deer and their babies, a large female black bear killed two years ago, turtles, hawks, owls, daily squirrels, opossums and many other water birds, including some feral cats.. I have the carcases sad photos to prove it and breaks my heart as our woodland friends were here first . I even have the video of a young female deer running along the edge of the Linear Park followed by her frightened baby, while careless drivers speeded passing my car, driving slower for that very reason on the right lane. Same story on some sections of Colbert Lane. What is needed to achieve the goal of few “Warning Wildlife Crossing” signs? Maybe some compassion, that looks like our elected ones do not have. In a no distant future probably sculptures will be the only remaining local wildlife sign around us for future generations to see of “the way is used to be”.

  11. "Millie" the Manatee says:

    Palmcoaster, What you say is very sad indeed, unfortunately you probably know that the main stream media, our politicians, and in general the public have little concern for the things you mention.

    This is a generation largely concerned with “what’s in it for me” they have no time to even slow down for such unimportant creatures.

    Yes, once in a while a local paper will print an article about the manatees, or an eagle or something and a politician may mention the environment, but as you see with the speed zone issue that is most often just lip service no substance, or real meaning goes with it . (It most often comes down to the $$$)

    In this county for example they are still burying alive, the endangered gopher tortoise under slabs of concrete to build homes or shops, not a nice death as it could take months for them to starve to death, trying to dig themselves out from under yards of concrete.

    Not surprising that man just in the last century, was responsible for the extiction of five hundred species of animal, today there are approximately 5000 species on the endangered list, with one species departing every single year.

    Keep the faith, and hope that more people will wake up soon, we can only hope, and be sure to vote.

  12. Tax payer of Palm Coast says:

    Where does he stand on this issue : consolidation of fire services with the county, this would save money and provide a better service for all tax payers in the county.

  13. Layla says:

    Interesting question re the City Manager’s salary, Mr. McGuire. When asked this question directly a few months ago at a council meeting, Mr. Landon replied, “an appropriate amount for my position.” I don’t think he answered the question, do you?

    Pierre knows what he makes and I am wondering why he is keeping that information to himself? I believe his salary is in the mid $300,00 range, and closer to $400,000 when you add in the benefits.

    Interesting to me that we have a City Manager who was hired at a salary higher than that of the Manager in Orlando and many larger Florida cities. He also makes more than many US Mayors and State Governor’s.

    Now THERE’S a budget item we might reduce!

    • FlaglerLive says:

      Layla, details of the city manager’s salary, including a copy of his contract, were reported here, as were the salary packages of all other top government executives.

  14. John D'Ercole says:

    Mayor Netts is an unusually competent person. He is honest and deserving to be re elected to the Mayoral Position. There is not one other person who i can say can fill the boots of Mr. Netts. If in fact he is running again dhe does deserve your vote

  15. Stevie says:

    Netts may be running for office again sooner than you think. There is a recall petition circulating.

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