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.
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.
“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.