Members of the Palm Coast City Council bumped a new city hall off the list of 11 “top priorities” for the coming year at their goal-setting session two weeks ago. Two council members—Bill Lewis and Holsey Moorman didn’t even include a new city hall on their list of priorities, top or not. The council was more interested in issues that directly impact residents’ quality of life in a hurting economy, such as job creation, public safety and city infrastructure improvements.
You wouldn’t know it from Tuesday’s council meeting.
Planning for that new city hall was near the top of the agenda of the council’s workshop, as was a Formula 1-worthy timeline for starting engineering on the 40,000 square foot, $10 million building next month, finishing initial designs by year’s end, starting construction a year from October, and moving in by the end of 2012. And to hear the council on Tuesday, they were already fancying refinements to the entrance to the council chamber down to the “decorative trim” on the building and debating the finer points of parking and flat roofs.
If City Manager Jim Landon was looking for a green light to move toward that new city hall, he got it Tuesday. “We will proceed with the next steps,” he said.
Landon, the head cheerleader for a new city hall in Town Center, started the discussion by saying that he was merely responding to council members’ desire for more details about a concept, a timeline and a funding plan for a new city hall. But he left no doubt that this was one of his top priorities. “If you wait a year or two from now, the concern will be that construction costs will go up,” Landon said. It was one of a series of remarks qualifying the project less as mere proposal than as an imperative. He was ready for what Netts called “a road show”—selling the project to the community’s interest groups. He was also ready to deflect any detraction from a Town Center city hall as the only option.
“I’m going to have to see the budget before I make that commitment,” Netts said. But Landon had most of those numbers, too.
Some council members wanted to know the options at their current offices at City Walk, which happens to be in foreclosure. The current owner doesn’t want the city out of there. Nor is a bank likely to throw out the city if it takes over ownership: the city is the strip mall’s best customer, paying $20,000 a month in rent. But Landon doesn’t like the place. He literally winces when he describes the city’s offices being there. He is a big promoter of Town Center as Palm Coast’s real downtown (at least eventually) and he sees the new city hall there as an anchor to future development.
So the council discussion on the new city hall Tuesday was not about options. It was about what to build, how to build it, and when to move in, with a design that shows where the buildings would be in relation to parking, Central Park and other buildings. As Senior Planner Beau Falgout, who led the initial presentation, put it, “it’s a starting point, it’s not final plans, so think of it as things that you can add to.”
In 2005, in a vote unparalleled in the city’s history for its lopsided result, 82 percent of Palm Coast’s voters rejected a plan to build a 70,000 square-foot city hall. Mary DiStefano, a veteran of that fiasco who’s still on the council, has since adopted the usual criticism associated with that plan, which was developed by then-City Manager Dick Kelton: she calls it a “Taj Mahal.” But DiStefano had supported it. Her issue with it focused on design, not square footage or cost. And at the time the council’s offices weren’t exactly in a hovel: they occupied a 60,000 square-foot office building, which Landon and the council gave up two years ago, in exchange for some $3 million, so Palm Coast Data could move offices into it.
Netts had opposed the new city hall proposal in 2005 and felt vindicated by the vote and what had led to it. Critics of the plan had mobilized over the battle cry that the city was better served paying attention to roads, swales and stormwater issues—those issues on the council’s highest priority list this year. Netts has been much more supportive of Landon’s city hall push. “Certainly more attractive than its predecessor,” Netts said on Tuesday, in reaction to the design. (Netts was not on the council when Kelton was hired. He was when Landon was hired.)
“Are there other options out there? Sure,” Landon said. Netts interrupted him: “But this is the free option.”
Not quite: the $10 million construction cost would not be financed. Some $2 million would come out of the city’s capital funds (the fund that builds roads), $1.2 million from the utility fund (that’s where Palm Coast pay their water bill), and $1 million from the building department fund, which piled up permitting fee revenue during the boom years.
The remaining $5.8 million would be borrowed. Creatively so, but borrowed nevertheless: the city would finance the construction project with up to $5.8 million out in money from the general revenue (the portion of the budget that pays for the day-to-day running of the city). The money would be paid—or more accurately, “re-paid”—to the general revenue by the Town Center special taxing district, or CRA, as the acronym goes—Community Redevelopment Agency. A CRA collects and spends taxes in its district without sharing much of the revenue with the rest of the city or the county. It’s designed to spur re-development. While there wasn’t much development yet in Town Center, the city’s general fund “lent” the CRA $5.8 million over the past several years for land acquisition and other projects related to the CRA. The city, to build its city hall, would, in effect, call in that loan. The CRA doesn’t have all that money: it will turn around and borrow most of it from a bank. The city is betting that eventual development will repay the CRA’s loan. The end result is the same: tax money from the Town Center CRA will be obligated to the city hall.
Landon went to some lengths, as he has before, to distance the plan from its 2005 predecessor. “What voters were asked to approve is not the same as what we’re proposing now,” the city manager said. “We are not proposing that tax levy be increased to pay for this.”
But every dollar spent on a new city hall, by whatever means, and precisely because voters have not approved a special revenue source for it (such as a tax-supported bond) will still be a dollar not spent on direct services to taxpayers and residents. Comparatively, the city is in the midst of a $26 million construction project for the widening of Belle Terre north of Palm Coast Parkway, a cost almost three times that of the proposed city hall. But the artery is at the heart of the city. Residents use it by the tens of thousands every day. It facilitates their daily lives (or will, anyway, once completed). A city hall doesn’t have quite the same immediate impact on residents, especially when the city has a city hall. What it’s missing is a city hall with style, and one that accommodates its employees more comfortably. Remarkably, during Tuesday’s meeting, the issues Netts and Landon raised about the discomforts of being at City Walk related strictly to the city’s employees, and amounted to annoyances (such as thermostat issues and the bother of having to walk down two levels by way of outside stairs to go from one department to another) rather than critical deficiencies that affect resident services. Or that most residents would care about.
The council didn’t vote on the matter on Tuesday. But after an hour’s discussion on the matter, much of it a masterful production by Landon designed to lead to one conclusion, the council was where Landon wanted it. Without a vote, and without input from residents, the city set the wheels and dollars in motion to build a new city hall at Town Center.