By Rick Belhumeur
On the surface Flagler Beach appears very similar to how it looked during my first visit there over 45 years ago. Of course the biggest physical change is the replacement of the two-lane road and draw bridge with a new four-lane road and a massive bridge for access to town over the Intracoastal Waterway.
Most people who visit Flagler Beach probably wouldn’t notice or know of the changes because they are there for what has always been the city’s main attraction: the ocean. People have also always come to town to dine at its restaurants. Residents weren’t affected much because there weren’t nearly as many restaurants as there are now. There were several bars in town but their patrons were mostly locals. Flagler Beach was self-sustaining and provided the services that it’s residents and visitors required.
Sometime around the turn of the century–the 21st century, that is–things started changing in Flagler Beach.
The city started accommodating more businesses in town. With more businesses came more visitors requiring more services. The taxpayers of Flagler Beach are paying for these additional services–without benefiting from all the visitors who make those greater demands on services. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Now the residents have to tolerate this influx of people and the problems they cause. Visitors come into town, crowd the streets, use up the parking spaces, leave trash on the beach and break the laws. The taxpayers of Flagler Beach are the losers because more and more of the city resources are being used for visitors and less and less for the residents.
The majority of those who come to use the beach don’t necessarily spend money while they are in town. They find a place to park along the ocean, carry their cooler with sandwiches and beverages to the beach and leave town when they are exhausted. The people who come to town to shop at the stores, eat at restaurants and party at the bars do spend money. But the sales tax revenue doesn’t stay in town. Taxes collected go to the state and the county. Some of this money does come back to town but not in proportion to the rate in which it’s generated. It is given back in proportion to the population of the city, which means Flagler Beach only gets about 5 percent of the revenues given back to the municipalities by the County.
Flagler County certainly knows the significance of using Flagler Beach to promote the county and attract visitors nationwide. The Tourist Development Council (funded with a county-wide sales surtax on motels, hotels and other short-term rentals) is using Flagler Beach in a promotional video, brochures and advertising in national publications to encourage people to visit Flagler County. Combine that with the city’s own encouragement of day trippers through special events, and it’s easy to see why the services of this tiny city are overwhelmed.
The recession only made things worse. The city’s main source of revenue–property taxes–took a huge hit. The county, which was in the same predicament, chose to modify the formula by which revenue from a local half-penny sales surtax was distributed to the municipalities, keeping more for itself. Flagler Beach had to find ways to support its budget with less money. If you factor in the rapidly escalating costs of providing health care and pension benefits to its own employees, the city had no choice but to make cuts and raise the property tax rate. Flagler County should absorb at least some of the additional cost of providing extra police protection, rescue services and trash collection required to accommodate the flood of visitors to Flagler Beach.
Last week the Flagler Coounty Commission appeared ready to offer the sort of help that would reduce annual costs to the city by $100,000 or more by combining fire services through a variety of options, some of which would retain Flagler Beach’s ownership of its fire house and equipment. So why was Flagler Beach Commission Chairman Steve Settle so quick to stand before the County Commission and say: “We decided at this particular time we’re not going to go forward with asking for this help.”
Who does Settle mean by “we?” We, meaning the residents of Flagler Beach? We, meaning the City Commission? I believe he meant the City Commission, but how can he speak for the entire group of commissioners? That same commission voted unanimously to ask pointed questions to the county so an informed decision about how to move forward with the Flagler Beach Fire Department could be made by both public and commission.
None of the city commissioners knew the answers to all of the questions asked when Settle made his unilateral declaration to the county, and neither did the taxpayers of Flagler Beach. The county conveyed those answers to Flagler Beach commissioners only late this week.
Settle’s was not an informed decision, as promised it would be previously. Very little (if any) consideration was given to the prospect of the county helping the city with this huge burden to the taxpayers of Flagler Beach. There was no deliberation within the city commission, no negotiations with the county, and most importantly, no feedback from the residents of Flagler Beach. The people of Flagler Beach have been deprived of the opportunity to have a higher level of fire rescue services for less money.
It is going to cost the taxpayers of Flagler Beach many hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to replace equipment and upgrade its Fire Rescue Services to 21st century standards. It is the City Commission’s responsibility to keep the residents’ best interest in mind and keep the cost of providing this essential service under control. It’s not enough to say that we have always had a Fire Department and we will do whatever it takes(or costs) to keep it here. This way of thinking will only keep the city from providing all of the services its own residents need and wish for.
The Flagler Beach City Commission and its administration should keep in mind that there is life beyond the business district. That life is the homeowners in this town, the voters who still provide the majority of the revenue and should receive the majority of consideration before decisions are made that affect each and every one of them.