They’re supposed to meet once every quarter: every elected official from every local government (county, school board and five cities), some 35 people if they all show up, gathering around a rectangle of tables to hear updates on matters of common interest or propose new ideas. But the governments last met jointly almost a year ago, on Jan. 31, at what was supposed to be the launching point of a joint economic development effort to tackle the county’s high unemployment.
The group didn’t meet again until tonight, largely because the joint economic development effort that was supposed to bring them closer frayed and eventually failed despite a series of spring summits intended to build on a unity theme. No less than three separate government organizations were created under the guise of economic development initiatives—Palm Coast’s Business Assistance Center, the county’s economic development council, and a Bunnell-led “coalition of cities” to protect the interests of the county’s smaller municipalities. A fourth organization, the only one that had until then attempted to represent the whole county’s economic interests—Enterprise Flagler, the public-private economic development partnership—was abolished as Palm Coast and the county quit funding it and redirected money to their own initiatives.
The summits were not entirely unsuccessful. They led to five “strategic goals” that all local governments and business representatives could agree to, including maximizing Flagler’s role and voice in regional policy from here to Duval or south and west, targeting certain industries for development locally, better customer service in how government delivers its services, particularly to developers and other businesses, and the “robust” development of local entrepreneurship. Two of those goals (customer service and improving the climate for entrepreneurship) have seen tangible results, though the summits may have influenced only one of those (customer service, a pet project of business interests who’d primarily been involved in the summit.)
Local entrepreneurship was the goal with the clearest result on two counts: Palm Coast developed its Business Assistance Center and the county, through Commissioner Milissa Holland, seeded the beginning of an “agricultural incubator program” to support and foster more local, sustainable agriculture, with the military and schools as primary markets for those agricultural products. But neither the assistance center nor the incubator were a direct outgrowth of either joint government meetings or the year’s various summits: they were the result of individual (or individual government) initiatives.
It was a far cry from the statement of purpose County Attorney Al Hadeed had drafted just before last January’s inter-governmental meeting as a summation of the county’s voice: “The governments of the county will agree to the creation of a common fund that will be administered according to agreed upon plans and criteria. The common fund will be administered by a representative body of all the governments. The professional staffing to support the common fund will be managed by agreed upon public-private entity that is financially supported by the common fund, among other funding sources.”
There are funds. They are administered according to plans and criteria. But they are not common. It’s to each his and her own, with Palm Coast doing its thing and the county doing another, each with its own pot of money, though Palm Coast pays lip service to the county’s effort as the county-wide initiative.
Net job creation attributable to local governments’ economic development efforts since last January’s intergovernmental meeting: 19, which the Business Assistance Center takes partial credit for. (Net provable job losses last week alone, when a Palm Coast restaurant closed: 22.)
Nevertheless it was County Commissioner Alan Peterson’s aim to put a final exclamation point of sorts on the economic development agenda, which had been his signature issue in the year he served as chairman. He was just replaced by Commissioner Barbara Revels. It was left up to Roger Leverton, president of SCORE, the non-profit group, to sum up the spring’s summitry and its results. Leverton had taken a leadership role during those summits. He did a valiant job of putting on a happy, unified face on the end result of the year’s initiatives in his presentation to the collection of governments this evening.
“A great deal is being achieved toward meeting the goals that were established by the summit,” Leverton said. “Despite a number of detractors I think thanks to the summit, economic development is alive and well in Flagler County.”
But individual initiatives were essentially credited to various governments under the banner of the summit’s strategic goals, when in reality those achievements had either been in the works regardless or were the work of individual governments on their own. The summation unwittingly underscored something Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts—and his city manager, Jim Landon—had said at various point during the year: there may be general goals, but no single way to achieve them across the county.
And while Leverton described economic development as “embedded now as a self-sustaining activity” in Flagler, the economy itself—as opposed to politicians and business leaders who talk about economic development—has yet to find its way back to a self-sustaining mode.
Leverton’s presentation done, Revels, who chairs the county’s economic development council (which will have a budget of $400,000), presented the eight other members of the council to the assembly. That group is nearing the end of its hiring process for an executive director.
The meeting began with a presentation by County Attorney Al Hadeed on the matter of online travel companies not remitting sales taxes to Florida and, by extension, Flagler. Booking companies charge the tax under the guise of “fees.” But they don’t pass it on. It’s not clear how much tax money Flagler is losing that way, or how much business hotels are losing from direct bookings, since they have to charge the full tax (including the local bed tax, a 4 percent supplement to the 7 percent sales tax). Online booking companies have a competitive advantage when they can undercharge by knocking off some of the tax if they so choose.
Several counties, including Flagler, have a class-action lawsuit against online bookers to recoup the money. The Florida Legislature continues to attempt to pass bills that would exempt the companies from paying those sales taxes, which would nullify the lawsuit’s intent. So far the bills have failed. But the Legislature is trying again in the coming session. Flagler’s two House members—Bill Proctor and Fred Costello—are against the exemption. But Sen. John Thrasher, who also represents Flagler, is for it.
The County Commission this evening was seeking a unified vote from every local government, including the school board, opposing the proposal at the Florida Legislature to exempt online bookers from paying the tax. The unified vote, Hadeed said, would send “the strongest expression” possible, especially to Thrasher’s ears. “It’s not a partisanship issue. It’s about what is in the best interest of Florida,” Hadeed said. There was unanimity around the hall, with each government pledging to ratify a resolution to that effect either later this month or early in January.
The assembly also heard updates on the county’s public transportation system and its continuing studies on potential future expansion, and on beach protection, a matter of particular concern to Flagler Beach.