A jail divided against itself cannot stand. The Flagler County Commission is making sure of it, failing again Tuesday evening to agree on the soundest way to pay for a jail expansion.
Not only are Flagler County’s cities opposed to the way the county is wanting to renew a half-cent sales tax (the county would shift more revenue to itself, and away from cities). The county commission itself has been divided over the right approach. Commissioners were scheduled to place the measure on the November ballot Tuesday evening. They didn’t, agreeing only that their current plan won’t work. They will send their administrator through out yet another series of administrative meetings with the cities to come up with yet another possible compromise that may win the cities’ help. And they’ll return to the issue on July 31.
What the commission essentially did Tuesday evening was concede that its current plan is not workable: without the cities’ support, it’ll fail. The county wants the cities’ support. Judging from commissioners’ shifts Tuesday evening, the county wants that support even if it means compromising (or caving) to the cities demand that the revenue sharing formula remain in the cities’ favor.
Currently, the annual $4 million revenue from the sales tax is split this way: Palm Coast gets 64 percent, the county gets 29 percent, and the smaller cities get the rest. The plan the county had submitted for the renewal of the sales tax would have reduced Palm Coast’s share to 50 percent and increased the county’s share to 45 percent. Palm Coast’s repeated response over the last few weeks could be reduced to three simple words: no bloody way.
But county commissioners—namely, Alan Peterson, George Hanns and Barbara Revels—persisted, and as recently as last week that plurality pushed ahead with the plan.
Then Hanns, not normally a decider on the commission, revealed his change of heart. In a long, discursive comment that touched on the county’s failure to get a library referendum passed and the current anti-tax climate, Hanns concluded: “I’ve put a lot of thought into it and thought we should discuss it a little more and see is this something we absolutely believe will pass? Because in the event it’s a necessity, we know what we’re up against with the crime rising, with the overcrowding in the jail, I’m seeing personally people within the county that I’ve never experienced seeing before, people that may be not necessarily in gangs, but a little bit more intimidating looking than your normal neighborhood people might be, and I’m not so certain that this will pass, and in the event that it doesn’t pass, then we really have a quandary.”
Commissioners Holland and Nate McLaughlin had already opposed the current tax plan (McLaughlin because he doesn’t want the sales tax levy to be on the books for 15 years). So after Hanns’s declaration, the proposal was essentially dead.
Peterson asked the administrator what the numbers were. There was no clear answer.
Coffey did his best to present more solid figures, saying the current estimate of approximately $20 million for a jail was the result of lowering the costs identified in a Carter Global Associates study done during the peak of the housing market. “My analyses could be as much as 20 percent off either way without a professional design plan in front of me,” Coffey said. The commission has at least agreed to underwrite the cost of a design study. But lack of clarity in the county’s plan is one of the reasons the cities (with Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts leading the charge) have been merciless in criticizing it.
Holland repeated her skepticism about the plans. She said it would take time to get the public to understand what the commission is doing, that when they walk in to vote on that ballot they already should know what’s on it. She advocated for a phased approach. Commissioner Revels, the jail expansion’s biggest champion, contended that the people know where the money is going even as she conceded that the public doesn’t understand the overcrowding issue.
“The memory of the jail and all the discussions we’ve had about it are really important to revisit right at this moment particularly in light of the most recent crime sweep that was done in North Florida,” Revels said, referring to last week’s sweep of small-time prescription drug users and dealers in Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties. “And they pulled in how many perpetrators of selling pills and drugs and that type of thing. What people don’t realize, they’re going to cheer our law enforcement, from out of the area, they’re going to cheer that action, and they don’t realize what had to happen the next day. Do you know what had to happen the next day? We had to have all the judges and all the jail people, and all the sheriff’s department and the clerk’s office, and everybody had to sit down and talk about—now who are you going to let go. You arrest all these people, now who are you going to let go? And so the very next day you’re putting all these drug dealers in, but you’ve got to let somebody out. There were no mattresses left at the jail the next day. No mattresses, not beds, just mattresses. So we do not have a choice that we cannot fund this jail. I think we’ve looked at all the alternatives in our previous workshops.”
In reality, most of the prescription-drug pushers pulled in by the sweep made the decision for authorities easier simply by bonding out.
“At the end of day, you can afford what you can afford and that’s it, just like anyone else,” said Holland. “In other communities, they’re building facilities that have the ability to add on. We’re still getting a lot of questions about why we built our courthouse so big. There’s a disconnect about where we are today. We need to come at this with our municipalities on board—it makes more collective sense than doing it on our own.”
Revels balked. “We don’t have time,” she said, pointing out that the county went to the municipalities before.
So they will again. The commissioners ended up officially tabling the motion in the hopes of finding another means of generating revenue at a future workshop while re-negotiating with the cities.
The county will re-assess the sales tax plan at a meeting on July 31.