The Flagler County Commission realized in mid-summer it had done a poor job explaining to voters why they should renew a half-penny sales tax they’ve been paying for 10 years. The commission also realized it had done a poor job of negotiating with Flagler’s cities on how to split the sales tax revenue. The county wanted to significantly increase its share. Palm Coast and Flagler Beach balked–and withdrew their support of the measure, thus making its passage at the ballot box far more difficult. (Flagler Beach later appeared willing to go along with the county.)
On Monday, the county commission–at least two, possibly three, of whose members won’t be there by November–formalized what it had planned to do since realizing its mistakes: it voted to enact the sales tax anyway, by an extraordinary super-majority vote of 4-1, with Milissa Holland in dissent. It voted to impose the tax for 20 years–also a first for Flagler County–ostensibly to build an expansion to the jail, though the size and need for that expansion remain murky. And it voted to vastly increase the share the county will take from the sales tax revenue, reducing the share that goes to the cities.
The sales tax supplement generates $4 million a year. The current sharing formula has the cities getting 72 percent of the revenue, with Palm Coast getting the majority, or $2.6 million a year, because it has most of the county’s population. Today’s vote lowered the cities’ share to 55 percent, slashing $500,000 a year from Palm Coast’s revenue. (Palm Coast will almost make up the difference with its new red-light camera scheme, which will, when fully installed, guarantee the city close to $400,000 a year).
The commission also dismissed a compromise it had itself presented to the cities on redistributing the money. Barbara Revels, the commission chairman, had proposed to phase-in the cities’ reduced revenue over five years or more. But today, that proposal was no longer part of the vote. The county will immediately adopt the sharing formula set by state law.
The county commission also dispensed with a public education campaign it had promised earlier this summer, after conceding that its referendum plans had collapsed in part because it hadn’t prepared the public for one. “There is no choice. We have to do it,” Brabara Revels, the commission chairman, told her colleagues at the end of July. “I understand that there are people here that cannot take that position this evening, but I am willing to take that position, and I’ll take the heat for it, and I’ll do every bit of education I can. I’ll go to any organization, I’ll go to any citizen’s group, any neighborhood watch group. You call me, I will come. I will go through the presentation. I will do every bit of education I can. But I believe we’ve got to come to an agreement with the cities, and we have to just take the heat and vote it in.”
But somehow the commission appeared confident enough to have the votes for a unilateral sales tax measure, and little public education ensued–chiefly because little new information emerged about the jail expansion the county says it will build. But there’s no disagreement among commissioners that a bigger jail is needed. Even Holland now concedes that an expansion is needed. But not without popular approval. That was just one of the reasons she cited in her opposition to the vote.
“I was very steadfast in regard to the calculation and distribution with the municipalities, and I’m not comfortable approving this item for many reasons,” Holland said, first citing the sharing formula. “I just think this was handled poorly, and I think that at the end of the day, yes, we’ve all agreed that the jail is necessary and needed,” but, she continued, “I too am not comfortable approving this without the vote of the people. We’ve can talk about this as having been an ongoing sales tax for 20 years, but it was at the will of the people that that occurred. So I’m not going to support this item today.”
Revels did not agree with Holland’s characterization of the issue even as she admitted in a long explanation to commissioners that the county had made mistakes along the way.
“I agree that I wish there had been the ability to take it to the citizens. However, with everything I tried, and our administration tried in our workshops, and all of our outreach, we were unable to get all of the cities to agree to the same thing,” Revels said, claiming many efforts to get the cities to agree to a compromise. “So it may have been handled poorly, but I don’t believe that I’m willing to accept that that was the entire fault of the county. I think that we made every attempt under very, very tight, constrained time-period to try to move this issue forward. At different times we were told we had an agreement, and then we didn’t have an agreement. So there was a lot of mixed messages and I’m very sorry for that because it’s been divisive in the county.”
Revels then reiterated her wish to have taken the measure to the public in a referendum, but then spoke of residents who had talked to her about the jail issue, and seeing her vote as a duty in line with what she’d heard. She wasn’t referring to a public outcry for a jail, to be sure. She was referring to a public outcry–never heard at the commission or in public meetings–against the commission using the property tax to raise revenue for a jail expansion. Commissioners refer to the property tax as “ad valorem millage.”
“They don’t want to have us raise their ad-valorem millage assessment to the maximum we can charge in order to pay for this,” Revels said, “because that’s what would happen. If we did not pass this today, and we have to move forward with the jail, short of shipping our jail population to other communities and coming under some sort of federal or state orders, we’ve got unsafe conditions already, we’re going to have some really difficult times on our hands, and our only option, our only other option, would be to raise franchise fees and the ad valorem taxes. And I think we would be lynched if people got their tax bill at this time next year, seeing what they’d have to pay for to build a jail. So I’m going to be strongly in favor of it.”
No calculations were presented to the public showing the numbers behind Revels’s claim, chiefly because the county has yet to lay out a cost for the jail expansion. Three of the four residents who spoke to the commissioners just before their decision cited just that absence of facts to illustrate their skepticism. The fourth was Jason DeLorenzo–who stayed in the chamber after his earlier victory, getting the commission to adopt a two-year moratorium on, ironically, a building tax, though not the sort of building tax that can be used to build jails. DeLorenzo is the government affairs director for the Flagler Home Builders Association. He was heartily behind the commission’s decision to keep “the bad guys” in jail.
After November’s election, two of the five commissioners–Alan Peterson and Milissa Holland–will no longer be on the commission. Peterson was defeated in August by Charlie Ericksen. Holland is resigning after Nov. 6. She’s running for a Florida House seat. Commissioner George Hanns’s fate is unclear: he faces Herb Whitaker in the November election, making it possible, come November, to have a majority of commissioners who did not have a voice in today’s decision, despite its 20-year expiration date.