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In a Snub to Cities, a Split County Commission Agrees to 15-Year Sales Tax for Jail Expansion

| July 2, 2012

That cell at the Flagler County jail is built for four felons. It had five. While overcrowding has been managed at the jail, the sheriff and county authorities say an expansion is critical. (© FlaglerLive)

Last Updated: 7:30 p.m.

Palm Coast and Flagler Beach won’t like it, and their voters may show it at the polls, but Monday afternoon, a fractured Flagler County Commission agreed to put the extension of an existing half-cent sales tax to referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The problem isn’t the tax. Every local government wants it. So does every politician. The problem is the split of the $4 million revenue. Palm Coast and Flagler Beach are happy with the current sharing formula, which favors cities over the county. Cities are getting 72 percent of the revenue at the moment, the county is getting the rest. But the county wants to change the formula to something closer to a 55-45 split (with the county getting 45 percent), shifting more revenue to the county. For Palm Coast, the net loss would be around $500,000 a year.

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Only three of the five commissioners–Barbara Revels, Alan Peterson and George Hanns–went along with the proposal. Nate McLaughlin was not in support of a 15-year levy. He said voters would not go for it. Milissa Holland was categorically opposed to changing the revenue split, saying it could jeopardize the passage of the levy and hurt relations with the cities. She is also unconvinced that the jail expansion needs to be as large as the county administration is proposing.

“I’m not sold yet on the amount for the jail and I don’t want to cause an unnecessary issue with our municipalities,” Holland says. “I still think if we went to 20 years, used the same formula and built to what we needed immediately to take care of a lot of our issues, hopefully we could do that with doing as minimal cost as possible for operations.” That way, Holland added, cities would have “buy-in,” and the proposal would have a better chance on election day.

“I can’t buy that,” Peterson said. The jail, he said, benefits every resident, including city residents, who would not likely vote down the proposal “because they’re cutting their own throat.” Peterson called Holland’s analysis “unduly pessimistic.”

Division within the commission, compounding divisions between the commission and the cities, will not bode well for the success of the levy, even though it’s not a new tax. It’s been on the books for 20 years. But the county’s history with the tax has been checkered. The tax built the county administration building, for example, which is popularly known as the Taj Mahal because of its ostentatious architecture–and empty spaces. The county has also been more cheeky than the cities about the way it’s spent the money.

On Monday, even though the county administration presented an extensive outline of jail costs and options, the commission failed to decide how it would actually spend sales tax revenue beyond agreeing, in general, to spend it on the jail. But it did not agree to an actual plan it could give voters–not even a number of beds that would be added. That, too, will potentially hurt the referendum’s chances even though, by then, those questions will be answered: the county’s divided indecision on the way is the political liability.

“The county commission made a decision,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said in a phone interview, in reaction to the meeting. “They made a decision that their needs are more important than the needs of the city. That does not go away in my mind. This was not any kind of collegial decision. This was a more or less unilateral decision on their part. So while I certainly appreciate that the $2 million revenue for the city could be an important asset, especially as we look at our stormwater issue, you’re never going to get me to say this was collegial and we’re standing shoulder to shoulder with the county. This clearly was not the case.”

Netts was critical of the county’s timing. “Their planning for it is delinquent, late in the game,” he said. “They should have had all these numbers in place long before the decision to proceed.” And still, he said, the decision lacks clarity, including, for example, what the county would spend money on should the revenue from the tax exceed the needs of jail construction. Voters are not being presented a detailed plan. “That’s the part that disturbs me the most,” Netts said. He doesn’t discount that most residents might support the need for a bigger jail, but not in the abstract.

Revels, who chairs the county commission, said she’d been meeting with city and county leaders to seek out a compromise, unsuccessfully. “We absolutely had to take some action to ensure that we’re going to be able to fund the jail, and the commission has shown a desire to take it to the citizens and not just unilaterally make a decision on their own by super-majority vote,” Revels said. “what I had proposed was not good enough.” Revels had proposed a phased-in schedule where cities would get the same amount of revenue next year that they got this year, with gradual reductions toward the county formula, spread over five years. “Everyone must consider that the jail is for the entire citizenry, for public safety. If they knew how many people were being released into the population by the judicial system, they’d be much in favor of replacing our jail as soon as possible.”

Revels was particularly disappointed by Holland’s position. Holland said she would not campaign in support of the referendum in its present form. McLaughlin sounded more conciliatory, though he still opposes the proposal.

Craig Coffey, the county administrator, underscored the danger of going to a referendum with a divided population–if the cities are not in agreement. “That’s a danger for you,” Coffey told commissioners. “If it fails, where do you go from there? That’s what I want the board, you guys, to really consider.”

The alternative for the commission at that point is to vote for a sales tax regardless. But that vote would require a super-majority of at least four votes. And the revenue may not be bonded, as it may be with sales tax revenue. Those votes may be harder to secure should November’s election shift the commission right. At least one seat will change hands (Holland’s, as she is running for a Florida House seat), two more (Peterson’s and Hanns’s) could also turn over. Both their most of their opponents are more conservative than the incumbents.

The cities’ reactions, especially city voters’ reaction, will be the big variable.

“From the city’s perspective we’re going through the same thing and we have capital projects we want to do,” Jane Mealy, who chairs the Flagler Beach City Commission, said. “We’re kind of counting on that money, so I’m not happy with that decision. I don’t know whether the commission is going to support it or not.” Personally, Mealy described herself as “torn.”

“I look at the city first, of course, the city’s needs as opposed to the county’s needs, so I’m disappointed is where I am right now,” Mealy said.

The more-than-three-hour workshop on the county jail and the sales tax followed a regular meeting of the commission in the morning and straddled the lunch hour. After lunch, the workshop featured Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano in his second appearance before local governments in less than four months to press the case for a new or expanded jail.

Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano. (© FlaglerLive)

Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano.
(© FlaglerLive)

“We keep an eye on the jail capacity every day,” Zambrano told commissioners. “Every day I receive those numbers. I’m sure most of you receive those numbers. Those numbers have gone down dramatically recently but only because we have made some very difficult choices in having to release folks when we don’t want to, and then try to keep the most violent, the most likely to re-offend, the most likely to be a problem in the community.”

Zambrano also had harsh words for juvenile court and its consequences: “Juvenile court is a dog that don’t bite,” he said. “I hate to say that. And the sad reality is what happens next. You have a juvenile offender who commits 18 burglaries and nothing happens to him. Then he commits one burglary as an adult, or he gets bumped up as an adult. And then all of a sudden he hears the word prison. He wonders, what about jail? Why can’t I stay in my community and see my family? So they graduate rapidly from one extreme end from another without having that middle step. So that’s an issue. Another example is drug court. We have folks who don’t graduate from drug court. They flunk out of drug court. These are their first offenses. Typically in the beginning I was going from drug court, first-time offender, failing out of drug court and going to prison. The standard sentence I was giving was 22 months in prison. So they went from almost no jail to prison. Only in recent times some folks–and you have families who want to still be in the life of their loved one despite the fact that they couldn’t make it through the program–and I’ve had to really think hard about, OK, do I really want to tie up a bed for 180 days or 365 days. That weighs in the back of my mind. Obviously I try to do what’s fair and what’s just under the circumstances. But when I am sensitive to the fact that you are having this issue and I don;t want to put your county in such a dire straits that you have to take some very drastic measures to sort of correct what is really a deficiency in the community.”

Zambrano stressed to commissioners that he was not aware of what proposals the administration was putting forward, nor was he wanting to know. “I have not seen anything nor do I want to tell you what you need. I just want to tell you what you have,” Zambrano said.

Flagler County Commission presentation on jail expansion, July 2012

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15 Responses for “In a Snub to Cities, a Split County Commission Agrees to 15-Year Sales Tax for Jail Expansion”

  1. Biker says:

    “Craig Coffey, the county administrator, underscored the danger of going to a referendum with a divided population–if the cities are not in agreement. “That’s a danger for you,” Coffey told commissioners. “If it fails, where do you go from there? That’s what I want the board, you guys, to really consider.”

    Translation. Since the residents of the cities that make up over 80 percent of thie county population might be against this, we need to avoid a referendum and force it upon them. ?? Really ?? Flagler county has not changed one iota in the last 13 years. Here comes another Potato Palace.

    Mr Coffey. You work for us the voters of the cities which you have chosen to do this to. Mr Peterson you went along with this action. Both of you need to be removed. You need to be replaced with people that actually understand who they work for, and where theit allegience should lie.

    • Think first, act second says:

      Biker, you are right. In the article is a sentence which is the key to this entire subject. FL says, “The alternative for the commission at that point is to vote for a sales tax regardless.” It is this process that they are relying on, but guess what it will not have to be done until AFTER the election and they hope they are re-elected both of the ones mentioned for re-election and the Holland replacement race and only IF the referendum does not pass, which I give less than a 1 in 3 chance of passing myself on top of the 1/2 cent school board referendum in August.

    • Magnolia says:

      Anonymousay, You’re just NOW noticing something is wrong with our commission? Where you been? Look around you.

      Holland needs to step down as well. Resignations should be immediate. None of these people work for us. It’s all about getting elected.

      Reminder at election time, don’t keep voting for the same people and expect different results.

  2. PJ says:

    Rather have sales tax than another property tax, or perhaps you can do like a Palm Coast wonderful ideas put red light cameras up to help pay for stuff. Better yet sucker punch us residents and add a srvice fee that we will will never use to your garbage bill. Oh yea a Utility fee on top of the utility fee. OH a franchise fee too, what the heck.

    I can go on and on with money raising scams for all the politicians but in my humble opinion they don’t need any help with (scams) sorry did I say that?

    I mean’t ORGINIAL IDEAS………………..

  3. palmcoaster says:

    I am not voting for the county 1/2 cents sales tax in the referendum! I am still deciding if I will vote for the school one. Regarding this jail will just be another Taj Mahal. Elect a new sheriff and pay for a jail improvement, with the forfeiture and violation fines unaccounted funds so far and a reduction to the sheriff budget. Too many chiefs at high pay and very few indians doing the real work.

  4. ANONYMOUSAY says:

    They should take money from their anticipated “Castle in the Clouds” future City Hall they want so bad. Oh now I remember, they can’t do that Jails and Prisons are money makers or that’s what George Bush Sr. and the like used to think. Now they are bank breakers causing the politicians to change laws to let people out early because they can’t afford to warehouse them anymore. Once again Flagler County and Palm Coast are too late for the gravy train!

  5. ANONYMOUSAY says:

    Just read another article in regards to this subject. It really is unbelievably hilarious how these people can come up with a million ways to make money. Like they really care about how uncomfortable an inmate is. Bottom line is they have clogged up the system with petty criminals and drug addicts and are losing money. Anytime they put someone on probation it’s revenue, provide warm bodies to the state it’s revenue. If they would have worked together from the get go Flagler County would have delayed the infestation of trash we have moving in and navigating through this town. These people look at it like an investment, but the citizens and taxpayers are the ones who suffer. Something is wrong if the powers that be can’t get a handle on this. It’s the same people getting arrested an kicked loose and not because it’s crowded. If that is the case gee, let a person out who stole a piece of gum as opposed to the one who just robbed four people. Take a look at all the undocumented workers or illegals arrested in Falgler County, they get a 250-500$ bond or fine however you want to look at it, and then cut loose. Now see what happens to a local it’s like a thousand and up. It’s crazy. I’m starting to think they baited all these criminal losers here for the reason of trying to make money off them but it’s not working out like they thought.

  6. tulip says:

    Because our jail is too small and prisoners are being released early to let new ones in and also the fact that some prisoners, generally juvies, are being sent elsewhere, the state is going to step in and force the county go build a new jail. Wouldn’t it make sense to do it on our own where there is still some “control” over the matter?

  7. roco says:

    With the underhand extension of Coffey’s contact and some of the Chicago politics that has been going on looks like our choices in the next elections will be very easy… These criminals must go. Either out of the county or to jail..

  8. Jim J says:

    I also am not voting for the county 1/2 cents sales tax in the referendum! None of the County commission really work for us.

    Please remember to tell you neighbors to vote on this tax issue. Palm Coast and Flalger Beach residents really are getting screwed

    • Think first, act second says:

      I disagree with you about the cities getting screwed. Where do you think the people incarcerated come from, the unincorporated areas of the county or the municipalities within the county. With more than 80%of the population living in the municipalities you can imagine the answer to that question. Now since they are the ones providing these fine ladies and gentlemen to the county to put up for a few nights shouldn’t they pay the tab for that and the tab in this instance is a portion of the taxes. Do you realize that at the recent discussion about this addition to the jail, that continuing supervision and upkeep of the prisoners will cost millions of more dollars a year, which will go into the county’s budget, so get ready for higher taxes. They are coming baby!

  9. palmcoaster says:

    @Think First. Suggest Judge Zambrano and colleagues to expedite the trials, as are taking too long at turtle steps pace. Once trials over, prisoners are vacated to prison for long term offenders. Do I get the impression that your are cheering for higher taxes? Who are you, the 1% member?

    • Think first, act second says:

      PC, do you understand the number of people and trials that are handled every year by the judicial system? Have you ever attended one of these trials which may take just for conversation sake 15 mins for the pleadings and decision. Multiply that by 8 hours in a judicial day and you only get 32 cases being resolved a day. With a jail that houses 140 or so and with the judge having to release to incarcerate you can see that the courts cannot keep up with the intellectuals wanting to spend a vacation there.

    • Think first, act second says:

      palmcoaster, check out the feature story here about your taxes going up 12%. That 12% does not include the 1/2 cent tax referendum they are going to propose in November, no not cheering for it, just warning you again. Now did I not try to forewarn you about this last night. You ask am I cheering for higher taxes, the answer is no I just saw this coming because there was no other out. About the 1% thing you will have to ask Obama about that, he is the only one who mentions that figure, and inappropriately.

  10. Art Blakely says:

    We need to expand the jail capacity. There will be lots of of criminals and politicians that will need boarding.

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