There were two telling moments at the Palm Coast City Council and the Flagler County School Board last Tuesday. Separately, the actions the two agencies took looked like routine business. Taken together, they sum up the way local governments undermine each other at the expense of their residents. The Flagler County Commission on Monday will do its part to make matters worse when, as expected, it approves placing on the November ballot a half-baked referendum that would raise taxes to pay for more commercial buildings.
The referendum is being pushed by the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce. It looks well meaning. But it’s badly timed, poorly sold, and risks jeopardizing far broader voter initiatives that affect every aspect of local residents’ quality of life, including schools, roads, parks and other vital infrastructure. A tax to build commercial properties is also not needed: private developers are building those properties at their expense. Taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook.
First, those two interesting moments last week. Palm Coast is planning for two new, huge developments on its west side: Neoga Lakes and Old Brick Township. The developments would cover 11,600 acres, add 12,000 homes and 30,000 people over a couple of decades. State law requires that local governments certify that there’ll be enough water, roads, schools, recreation and other services to absorb the impact. Last Tuesday, two representatives from Palm Coast appeared before the Flagler County School Board to make sure that the board still plans to build a K-8 school for students from those developments. There is no money for the $36 million school, however. The school district told the Palm Coast representatives that they hope to build the school with money from a half-penny sales tax— if voters renew that levy when it appears on the ballot in 2012. The Palm Coast representatives were satisfied. They thanked the board and left. Hours later, the Palm Coast City Council approved 4-1 a letter of support for the chamber’s tax. It was as if the left hand didn’t know what lever the right hand was pulling.
The city’s move directly undermines the school’s coming referendum—and the city’s. Cities and the county are asking for a half-cent surtax renewal of their own in 2012. That money would build and resurface roads and bridges. The cities and the county can’t afford not to have that source of money. Nor can the school system afford to be without its share, at least not when Tallahassee is nickel and diming local governments. Disregarding the timing, or maybe because of it, the chamber jumped the line, hoping to get its tax in first and damn the consequences.
Since 2005, voters have turned down referendums to build a new city hall and community centers, and to give the library system its own funding source. They’ve only approved a tax to preserve ecologically sensitive lands. The school board is debating whether to go to voters with one or two additional referendums this fall and next (in addition to the sales tax), because part of the Legislature’s shell game with education money was to deny school boards the right to raise some of its revenue without voters’ permission. So whether the chamber’s tax proposal passes or not is irrelevant: the referendum will take its place in voters’ minds as another brick in a brawl of surtaxes hitting them over the head.
The chamber and Enterprise Flagler, the private-public economic development partnership are painting the initiative as urgent planning for a more diversified job and tax base in the future. The pair would have had more credibility if Enterprise Flagler could show much of a job-creation record in the past 10 years. It can’t. And what job creation it does boast of (especially keeping Palm Coast Data here) was mostly the city’s doing, not Enterprise Flagler’s.
There’s an even more compelling reason to reject the proposal. Remember those two massive new developments Palm Coast is dreaming of? They include 3 million square feet of commercial, industrial, and office space, to be built by private developers. One of Palm Coast’s priorities is to build its own commercial park. Even Bunnell has its own commercial-park plans. That’s without taking into account the dead commercial space at City Walk (where the city has its offices) and Roma Court, the dying commercial spaces at St. Joe’s Plaza and Hargrove Grade, the gaping promise of commercial space at Town Center, and the sprawl of empty, government-owned commercial space at the county airport. And they want to tax voters to build more in this climate of still-inflated illusions.
Referendums have to pass through the County Commission for a reason. Commissioners are expected to weigh the validity of a proposal in light of the bigger picture. They’re rolling over instead. You don’t have to come November.