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First Look at Palm Coast’s New City Hall Revives Old Questions About Cost and Taxes

| March 12, 2014

The back end or lakeview side of the projected Palm Coast City Hall in Town Center. (C T Hsu and Associates)

The back end or lakeview side of the projected Palm Coast City Hall in Town Center. (C T Hsu and Associates)

Political and accounting shenanigans aside, there is little question that the Palm Coast City Hall projected to rise at the edge of Town Center’s Central Park by next year will, judging from its early design, transform that barren zone into a handsome, modestly stately public and office space. It may even spur further development nearby while finally giving Palm Coast a stronger sense of permanence and identity than its government’s squatting  history has made possible so far.

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On Tuesday, the Palm Coast City Council got its first detailed look at the design of its new digs. The plan drew pointed questions about security measures and cost controls, but was otherwise a straightforward outline of what’s ahead, physically and financially. The council will be in ratification mode most of that time: the planning, as with most steps in this process going back to its inception, has been done for it.

City Hall will be built in several phases. The city has the dollars only for the first phase. That’ll be the main building, a 32,000 square foot structure and parking lot anchoring what may become a City Hall complex over the years. That segment will cost $6.9 million. City staff aside, it’ll be of little interest to residents except when paying bills or dealing with municipal matters.

“We wanted it to look like a city hall, institutional, therefore, you know, things like the clock tower,” City Manager Jim Landon said, “but we didn’t want it to be large and massive. That’s been our instructions all along. We still want it to be kind of what they’d call a human scale.”

Phase two is an 8,000 square-foot addition for community meeting space, including the council’s meeting chamber. That 8,000 square foot extension will cost several million additional dollars. The catch: Money for that is not available. The city projects it to become available as property tax revenue from Town Center property owners generate it. But it may not stop at that.

The city administration has pledged that it would not increase taxes on residents to build the structure. But it is using $5.8 million general fund tax dollars to do so: The city is dubbing that $5.8 million as a loan repayment from the Town Center Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). But that loan was made out of the city’s general fund, with dollars drawn mostly from property taxes. So while the city promises not to raise existing tax rates to pay for city hall, the building is very much being paid for with property taxes: whether or not subsequent taxes are raised is irrelevant: the revenue has already been generated through property taxes.

The city can also argue in the future that should it have to raise taxes for, say, general government purposes, it would not be doing so because of the cost of city hall. But that’s an accounting sleight of hand: had the nearly $6 million paid back by the CRA remained in the general fund instead of being spent on a city hall, such a subsequent tax increase would not have been necessary, since money would have been in the pot to avoid it.

For that subsequent, 8,000 square-foot expansion of city hall (and others after it), the administration pledges again not to raise taxes. But it will again be using property tax revenue to do so, except that those property taxes will be generated from property owners exclusively in the Town Center CRA. Town Center is very much part of the city. But it is a separate enterprise tax zone

City hall financing pledges continue to be fraught with such accounting sophistry. Tuesday’s presentation witnessed its share, especially when council member Bill McGuire, who had originally opposed a new city hall but came around to approving it, was concerned about the project remaining on budget.

McGuire got some assurances, but no guarantees.

“If you don’t live in Flagler County or close to Flagler County, you have no idea how volatile this project is,” he told Jim Hughes of C T Hsu and Associates, the design firm in charge of the project. “These numbers, as far as I’m concerned, speaking only for myself, they’re carved in stone.”

“It may not be stone, it may be stucco,” Mayor Jon Netts said.

The bulk of City Hall’s financing is made up of property tax dollars owed the general fund.

Landon strained to explain the deal: “We’ve made an assurance, a guarantee, that we’re not going to take dollars out of people’s tax dollars of today, and the way we do that is number one, that office space has a fixed amount,” he said, carefully noting that he was referring to existing taxpayers, not future taxpayers. “And we’ve made that very, very clear. The CRA portion of it is not as—we haven’t, um, those dollars come in every year, and we haven’t been as adamant that absolutely what exactly that price is going to be, because those aren’t coming out of the rest of the taxpayers. So, one pot of money, period. The other pot, we have a budget, we’re going to try and stay with it, but we’re not going to go to the general fund where our residents area having to pay for city hall. That’s been our guarantee and we’re going to stick to that.”

“I just want to re-emphasize that we bought that presentation, some of us at great pain, and I want to make sure that that’s what we live with,” McGuire stressed, referring to the presentation last year that convinced the council of the financing in place.

“This isn’t a budget, this is a fixed amount of dollars, and that’s how it has to stay,” Landon said, only to immediately qualify the statement: If there are change orders—meaning cost overruns—Landon said money from the local sales tax supplement will be used to pay them. Local taxpayers, of course, pay that sales tax.

Phase three is a prettified plaza at the south end of the building. Phase four would be a promenade and public plaza at the northeast end of the building. Subsequent phases would entail the addition of more office space. Keep in mind: CRA dollars cannot be used for office space. So those dollars will have to come out again out of the general fund, from property tax revenue. “This is not in the five-year capital plan whatsoever,” Landon said. In other words, if it’s built, it’ll be in another decade.

The interiors speak of a different human scale.

The city manager’s office would take one corner of the second floor, but at 224 square feet, it is no larger than other directors’ offices (at least not on the second floor: first-floor directors’ offices are smaller), and it would have none of the expanse and ostentation of the executive offices designed for the school board and county government building. (In fairness, the superintendent and county administrator who designed those colossal offices for themselves are long gone.) The second floor plan includes an office for a deputy city manager, a position that does not currently exist.

That said, the design is still preliminary, and is likely to change. Landon repeatedly cautioned city council members to be prepared for interior alterations, but not exterior ones. For example, the first floor design includes a rather large, 475 square foot wellness room, plus showers. Landon considers the room too large, but necessary. “I just did not want that to be a surprise,” he said, “but that’s something that’s pretty common in today’s world, particularly to try to encourage people to be healthy.”

Landon referred to his small office when he explained the importance of conference rooms.

“Conference rooms are a big deal. As you know I spend most of my time in conference rooms, not in my office,” he said.

“So you can get by with a smaller office,” the mayor said.

“Yes,” the manager said, to laughter. “Wait until you see my little office.”

The administration is not envisioning an armed guard at the entrance. That prompted questions from McGuire and Netts.

“If we can put armed guards in our elementary schools, shouldn’t we do something to protect our city employees?” asked McGuire. There are, in fact, no armed guards in Flagler’s elementary schools: voters turned down a tax increase last June that would have paid for those armed guards.

“The county’s armed guard doesn’t really do anything,” council member Bill Lewis said.

“Whether or not we have an armed guard, I am going to ask questions at some point about security,” Netts said. “How you can access various points, where there are doors that people come in unannounced. I mean, we’re showing—the problem we have in this existing facility is, you get to the third floor, there’s nobody knows that you’re there. So our control is, you’ve got to have somebody take you upstairs in the elevator. Well, you won’t have that here. You can come into any one of these exterior entrances and you can wander.”

“I’m a strong believer that bullet-proof glass and that behind-the-glass type stuff is detrimental,” Landon said. “I’ve seen it. Doesn’t work well. But there is things to do to help minimize those kinds of risks that we live with today.” Landon is also placing great emphasis on wanting a “smiling face, greeting you” any time a person walks into a department.

Construction documents and specifications will be developed in June. By then, no changes will be accepted without additional costs. The project, for now, is on budget and on schedule, its designers say.

Click Here to Download Palm Coast City Hall Preliminary Design

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20 Responses for “First Look at Palm Coast’s New City Hall Revives Old Questions About Cost and Taxes”

  1. That’s not much more than Bunnell will wind up paying for its City Hall.

  2. orphan says:

    Just reading this article’s quotes by Landon embarrass me!
    He ‘hems and haws’ at damn near every question put to him.

  3. m&m says:

    Why don’t I trust Landon and the city counsel to be up front with this ego trip??

  4. Jack Howell says:

    The sad thing here is that our Mayor and City Manager have a strong and proven record of pulling shady deals. They are known to be tellers of grandiose tales. I would not trust these two nor the rest of the city council as far as I could throw them.
    We, the people, have a chance to get rid of two of these losers this fall. Unfortunately, many of our voters won’t vote so these slime balls may get reelected. We can’t let this happen!

  5. confidential says:

    Very easy to build monuments to oneself on the backs of the taxpayers!
    Beside the inconvenience to have to drive 10 miles plus from the center of Palm Coast if the need to have to go to city hall, will arise. Good way to discourage the local residents to be present in the city council and other meetings. Good way to undermine the current location mall and surrounding businesses when they will vacate it. Then they waste our taxes on the BAC to promote economic development! What a pathetic joke! Prepare our wallets to fork the additional taxes created by the new Taj Mahal. The only individuals benefitted here are Council, Mayor and developer and associates of the Town Center not Palm Coast residents. Yes Mr. McGuire, the city and you all at the helm, are omnipotent when it comes to favor the special interest elite.

  6. Flatsflyer says:

    Stores are already closing in the plaza where the current City Hall is located. This will become another blight on the City simply because we have derelicts and criminals running the City. How does the public find out about the bribes and kickbacks associated with this boondoggle.

  7. Ron says:

    I think the proposed building looks great, and I fully support its construction in Town Center!

  8. Randy says:

    The people said no to a city hall how many times! This is an example of politicians doing what they want to do regardless of what the taxpayers want or say. I don’t care what they say, the is ultimently tax dollars paying for this building that we the people don’t need or want.

  9. Randy says:

    The people said no to a city hall! This is an example of politicians doing what they want to do regardless of what the taxpayers want or say. I don’t care what they day, the is ultimently tax dollars paying for this building that we the people don’t need.

  10. A.S.F. says:

    A wellness center for city employees. What a nice idea…but not so much for a town that can’t seem to get it’s head around spending even the smallest amount of extra money to support their local school system, in part because they think teachers have it so easy. I think city employees can manage to find a treadmill elsewhere and do their exercising on their own time.

  11. Brian says:

    Oh the one we told them no no no no no no No on, pretty big building for ten people to have a meeting in , not to mention its only phase one , guess they wont be outdone by Bunnell , and you can`t steal a lot of money on a smaller building , but big ones with different phases can get your bribe driven contractors to out bribe each other, what a bunch of dirt bags , wish they`d catch them altready and put them behind bars , this is getting ridiculous!!!!

  12. Genie says:

    Palm Coast, a classic example of government gone wild. It likely won’t be too long before this mayor and city manager are caught with their hands in somebody’s pockets. They don’t believe that the law applies to them.

    And this manager has waaaaay too much power in this town for an unelected official who makes more than most state governors, this state included. It is time to hold them all accountable.

  13. Lin says:

    Does anyone remember who on the city council or running for office said they favored a new build city hall? They always planned on going ahead on this no matter what they professed

    All the money for the new build is taxpayer money and as the Flaglerlive story says, if we are “short” in the future it is money the city may need that has been taken from the general fund. And taxes may be raised.

  14. Binkey says:

    I don’t know if we need a new city hall. I would be interested in what the people who work there think. To me it looks like it might be real inefficient in its current location, but it won’t pretend to know. The concept drawing looks ok, but I reall think that cost estimate is off. It’s pretty common to Se the estimate come in much lower than the actual cost because as the project moves forward there are changes. That’s very common. As for the wellness center I’m glad to see it. Where I work we promote and encourage wellness and support people who are trying to maintain their fitness level. Everything we have in ours is donated and can be used before or after work hours. Having employees who are conscientious about their health means less tine missed from work, increased productivity and provides a cheap (in our case cause it’s donated) benefit for the employees.
    We do not have endless money for payroll but being able to show our appreciation for the employees is important.

  15. EYEONFLAGLER says:

    I think the proposed building looks great, and I fully support its construction in Town Center!
    Start construction as soon as possible, and lets get it done!!
    Thank you to the emayor and council for your foresight on this project.

  16. DMD Liberty says:

    This will be great for the community. Finally the City Council steps up to do the right thing rather than pander to the crazies. Congrats…that was leadership.

    • A.S.F. says:

      @DMD Liberty says–…and leadership on a treadmill, no less…courtesy of the common taxpayers who have to resort to paying for outside gym memberships for THEIR workouts and “wellness.” Gee, can any citizen in Palm Coast feel free to use your “wellness” facilities, Mr. Council member?

    • Steven Nobile says:

      [Comment disallowed. Insulting.–FL]

  17. Initialjoe says:

    Better to invest in a building now then to have to lease/rent a building…I think that is the worst thing I have seen the City do.

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