In the face of intense opposition, but also just as intense support, the Palm Coast City Council Tuesday gave a unanimous Yes to a new city hall. The vote followed more than three hours of presentations, public comment and discussion before an overflow crowd at the Palm Coast Community Center, the largest crowd to turn up for any issue in recent memory.
The vote was on one of a series of agenda items related to the matter, but that one specific to approving a contract for the design of the $6.9 million initial building, making the project an immediate go. (The architect is under city orders to meet the price or lose the project.)
It was a dramatic vote that reflected a debate that went beyond the specifics of whether to build a city hall or not. The debate served to redefine how Palm Coast residents see their city, its economic direction, government’s responsiveness to public opinion and hopes for Town Center to live up to its expectations as the city’s new hub. Supporters clearly see a new city hall as not only a symbol of the city’s identity, but as a potential economic engine for Town Center. Opponents see it as an unnecessary use of public money at a time when the city faces other, more pressing needs.
But for the council, the long-term “vision” of the city and the proposal’s seemingly favorable financial terms were prevailing factors.
“We’re being called upon to make a fiscal decision that is in the best interest of our residents,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said.
“From a fiscal point of view, it makes sense,” City Council member Jason DeLorenzo said.
“I’m not worried about my reputation, I don’t have one, I just want to do what’s best for the citizens,” Council member Bill McGuire said, not opposing the proposal so much as favoring a referendum first. “I just don’t want to feel as though anyone is being disenfranchised by this.”
Council member Bill Lewis said he and other council members were delegated by the public to “bite the bullet and make the right decision.” And Council member Dave Ferguson, saying he’d tried to evaluate the matter without emotions, referred to “the trust factor” from the public as a guiding factor to make his decision. “Sure I guess it’d be great to have 51 percent of the people say yes,” he said, but the nature of the discussion “is going to disenfranchise somebody, somewhere.” The vision, he said, matters. And going by the numbers, he said “it’s a wise thing to do.”
Unlike 2005, unlike 2010 and 2011, when opposition to a new city hall was overwhelming, the opposition this time was strong, but far from unanswered. The difference is the organized support key organizations marshaled for the plan in the last few weeks, tackling the issue as if it were a political campaign. The Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, the Flagler County Association of Realtors, the Palm Coast Observer, and of course the city administration itself, using social media and its own considerable power of the pulpit, prepared the groundwork with compelling arguments of their own.
It paid off. A sizeable portion of the people who turned up for the council meeting Tuesday morning was in favor of the proposal, though for every favorable argument, the opposition had counter-arguments of its own. Of the 38 people who spoke, 23 were opposed (though that opposition included support for studying the matter longer and exploring other options), 14 were clearly in favor, and one was neutral.
More people spoke on this issue than on any issue since the city planned a new utility tax in June 2012. The public turnout for that issue caused the council to do a 180-degree turn on the matter and kill the proposal.
“I’m really amazed at the number of people who showed up at this meeting, and amazed at the number of people who spoke,” one man—who did not identify himself—said. He went on: “I see a significant problem is, and the problem is, the scientific method of problem solving has not been utilized to come up with a solution” to the needs of a new city hall. “I don’t see any developments of alternatives that the solution that’s being proposed is the same old tired solution to city halls.”
“Palm Coast is a big town, 70,000 population, and it’s growing,” another man said, speaking of its good planning, “maintenance” and its low taxes. “The logic and the financial analysis should demonstrate that not only can we build now, we should build now.”
Before members of the public spoke, the administration went through its various presentations, restating the proposal’s basics: a plan to build a $9 million city hall in Town Center, in two phases, with city offices going up in one building first, to be occupied by the end of 2015, and another building including community and government meeting rooms going up by 2018 or so, possibly sooner (the money for that portion is not available). The city actually has just $1.2 million in hand, but it would refinance a loan to the Town Center redevelopment zone and realize a $5.8 million repayment of that loan to the general fund, thus providing the initial $7 million required to build the first phase.
But one of the facts brought out by today’s meeting severely weakened the city’s claim that it could “save” $250,000 a year in rent money by building a new city hall. The reason: that $5.8 million loan to the redevelopment zone is generating $285,000 a year in interest to the general fund, more than compensating for those rent payments. That interest income will be wiped out of the general fund once the loan is “repaid,” and used to build city hall. The flip side to that argument, Chris Quinn, the city’s finance director, said, is that the Town Center redevelopment zone is paying that interest, and should look to end those repayments, especially as the zone’s lifespan is not endless. (The Town Center redevelopment zone is scheduled to be dissolved in the early 2030s.)
“This proposal does not add an additional line on the tax bill,” Beau Falgout, the city’s senior planner said, repeating a claim many opponents of the plan don’t take at face value: while taxes may not be raised now, they may be raised in the future, when they might not have been, because of the absence of the cash used to build the city hall—cash that could have been used as a hedge against higher taxes, as has been the case in recent years, when the city had the reserves to do just that. The city’s reserves are virtually non-existent at the moment.
“You are determined to shove this down our throats regardless of our wishes,” Vicky Hartley, a 13-year resident of Palm Coast, said. “Quite frankly, I’m tired of having your boot on my neck. This is an act of socialism on our people and we’re not going to tolerate it.” Hartley did not explain how the proposal had anything to do with “socialism,” a term tea party activists have taken to slinging, however inaccurately, at virtually any government proposal they don’t favor.
“It’s a different time and a different place now,” another resident countered, referring to the 2005 referendum in which 82 percent of the voters rejected what was then a much more elaborate city hall plan. “I believe the time is right to do this project. It makes sense financially. It will be a magnet in the Town Center to draw in new developers.”
John Walsh, the publisher of the Palm Coast Observer, gave the meeting one of its rare touches of humor when he acknowledged: “Yes, I am a used car salesman, a former used car salesman.” But, he said, he also signs 25 paychecks a week and spoke of “the right thing to do,” as a new city hall would spur economic activity in Town Center.
Mari Molina described the city presentation of the proposal as “a good cartoon tow watch on Saturday morning at 8 o’clock,” and said she’d stopped attending city meetings because she got the impression that the council would end up doing whatever it wished regardless of public opinion.
Doug Courtney, a frequent candidate for local office, said he wants to support the proposal, but has issues with it. “We need a place of pride where we as citizens can point and say this is our city,” and it should not be in a strip mall, he said. “The question you haven’t answered is, where else, what else?” Courtney said that while he supports the concept of a new city hall, there should be other options for locating it other than in Town Center. One of his proposals was Roma Court—another strip mall. “I want to support this, we need a city hall, but you haven’t given me the answers yet.”
Earl Scott, a Palm Coast resident, wondered why the city didn’t put together a commission to study the matter and involve the public, and what measures the city has taken to ensure that City Marketplace won’t become a “ghost town,” among other objections to the current plan.
The member of a business group that had held a meeting gathering 30 small businesses said that one of the members—many of whom are members of the Chamber of Commerce—were supportive of the proposal. He said the city currently relies on its small businesses, and therefore should listen to its voices.
In the end, the council decided that the long-term vision of the city transcended immediate voices–even if immediate voices see it differently.
If we pass this, these numbers are carved in stone,” McGuire, the council member, cautioned.
The council passed it at 12:34 p.m.