Note: Family will receive friends on Thursday, Sept. 11 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Craig-Flagler Palms Funeral Home, 511 Old Kings Rd. South, Flagler Beach. A funeral will take place the following day on Friday, Sept. 12, at 10 a.m. at Community Baptist Church, Old Dixie Hwy, Bunnell. Burial will take place at Flagler Palms Memorial Gardens.
John Seay, who devoted a lifetime to public service, including 24 years as Flagler County Property Appraiser, four as county commissioner and two as director of the state’s property tax division, died Saturday at his home in Flagler Beach. He had been in poor health for several years. He was 76.
A U.S. Army veteran, Seay was appointed property appraiser by Gov. Reuben Askew in 1971. He would subsequently serve in that office over three separate stints and four decades, straddling the nearly half-century that saw Flagler’s transformation from a quaint rural hinterland into the nation’s fastest-growing county. Along the way, he stood down the ITT Corporation in a four-year lawsuit that eventually resulted in a favorable agreement for Flagler, and a $1.27 million payment in back taxes. That’s the equivalent of $4.7 million in today’s dollars.
Seay left office for good in 2005 when he ceded the property appraiser’s office to Jay Gardner, whom he and Suzanne Johnston, the tax collector and a one-time employee, had encouraged to run. It was a reflection of Seay’s local political sway that he could exert almost unchallenged influence on that office whether he headed it or not. Gardner, who’d been a fee appraiser until then, ran unopposed and has held the office since.
“Everyone in that office had been either him or somebody you might say he wanted there,” Gardner said this morning. It became clear that Gardner would be unopposed six months before he took office. “He involved me into the office, I was welcome to go in and talk to the people,” Gardner remembered, including long talks with Seay about the law and the running of the operation. “You might say he took that six months to mentor me, to get me up to speed as a county property appraiser, instead of a fee appraiser,” which diminished the learning curve greatly.
Seay briefly left public service in 1993 to work as a private appraiser, only to win an election for the county commission in 1996, beating novice Republican Russell Forrest. “Government,” Seay said at the time in a News-Journal interview, “is like a business. It’s the people’s business and you have to work to get a dollar’s worth of service for every dollar collected. With good management it is possible to maintain a reasonable tax structure. Some county programs could stand `right sizing,’ which could mean an increase or a decrease of money. There is a need to review government services to determine where to improve and which programs are no longer wanted or needed.”
He served just one term in a job that at the time paid $23,722, less than half the current salary. One of the commissioners he served with was George Hanns, who’d been in office since 1992 and remains there to this day. He currently chairs the commission.
“My gosh, that’s something we all knew was going to happen one day, he’s been ill for so many years,” Hanns said this morning. “It’s interesting, John, when he was a commissioner and even before, he was always a good person to go to to ask questions about the county and what they’d do in the old days.”
Hanns added: “When he became a commissioner we weren’t able to have a conversations like the old days because of the Sunshine law, but he was always good to listen to at the meetings because he was very logical, he beat his own drums, he wasn’t led by anybody. People would try to impose their thoughts on him he would always grin, he had a famous grin, you’d know what he was thinking when he grinned—keep talking, keep talking.”
That would certainly be proven over the course of the ITT lawsuit, in which Seay was the primary defendant. ITT sued Flagler County in 1975 in an attempt to reduce the taxes it owed. The case went to trial in 1979.
Grilled by ITT attorney Sandy D’Alemberte—who had as his co-counsel two other attorneys, including the then-unknown Janet Reno, who would go on to be Bill Clinton’s attorney general–Seay defended his appraisal method, delivering one of his famous lines at trial: “I appraise property according to the property, not the owner.”
Seay had previously made his anger at ITT publicly known, charging that the corporation “attacked me personally.” Seay said ITT falsely accused him of keeping some properties off the tax rolls. The four-year suit culminated in a trial before Circuit Court William Wadsworth, and ITT’s defeat. The corporation agreed to pay $1.25 million in back taxes and interest for three tax years. Ironically, the lawsuit took a turn toward resolution when Seay began privately negotiating with the president and director of operations for ITT: James Gardner, father of the man who would succeed Seay at the property appraiser’s office.
“He definitely was very astute when it came to politics,” the younger Gardner said, recalling how, once Gardner agreed to run for the position, Seay gave him a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” originally published in 1937—ironically, the year of Seay’s birth.
“John Seay never said anything unless he’d thought about it,” Gardner said. “He didn’t speak off the cuff. When he spoke, he had given great thought to what he was going to say. He was a very, very intelligent guy.”
John Seay’s family provided the following obituary, reproduced here in full. Services will be announced once the information is provided.
John Watford Seay, 76 of Flagler Beach, died Sept. 6, 2014 at home surrounded by family. Mr. Seay was born Sept. 23, 1937 in Slocomb, AL and grew up in Arlington, GA and Chipley, FL where he graduated from Chipley High School.
Mr. Seay had a lifetime career as a distinguished public servant. As a veteran of the US Army he served four years with an honorable discharge. He served 24 years as Flagler County Property Appraiser, 4 years as County Commissioner, and 2 years as Director of the State Division of Ad Valorem Tax.
In 1959, he joined the Florida Marine Patrol and was assigned to work in Flagler Beach. He was Florida’s Chief Oil Spill Investigator and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander of the State Department of Natural Resources Oil Spill Administration. He implemented the State’s first Oil Spill Prevention Law and authored rules and regulations requiring financial responsibility for ocean going vessels and contingency plans for shore protection for all of Florida.
In 1971 he was appointed Flagler County Property Appraiser by Governor Reubin Askew. During that time a lawsuit was filed between Flagler County and ITT-CDC, the developer of Palm Coast. The dispute was over agricultural timberland (now Palm Coast) that the developer platted into residential lots. As the property appraiser of a then small rural county, he and the County took on a multinational corporation and won. The developer settled out of court.
In another instance he saved local taxpayers $1.47 million when the State Supreme Court overturned an improper State audit of county appraisals.
Because he stood fast during the four years of lawsuits as a result of the ITT-CDC challenge of his appraisal methods, Mr. Seay received the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce Good Government Award.
Seay gained notoriety as a result of that court case and was appointed in 1981 by Governor Bob Graham to Director of the State Division of Ad Valorem Tax in Tallahassee.
He authored revised guidelines for statewide appraisal of agricultural lands. He also designed and developed a state-of-art Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal System, which was adopted by several Florida counties. He served on the Judicial Nominating Committee, 7th Judicial Circuit and was President of the Property Appraiser’s Association of Florida. As a state certified commercial and residential appraiser, he was recognized as an expert witness in State and Federal courts.
He served again as Flagler County’s Property Appraiser from 1983 to 1993. He then retired to do private commercial appraisals and served as Flagler County Commissioner from 1996 to 2000. In 2000 he was again elected Property Appraiser and served until his second retirement in 2005. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease later that year.
Mr. Seay was a 32nd degree Mason and a member of the Bunnell Masonic Lodge #200.
He was predeceased by his parents, John Mathis Seay and Elizabeth Watford Seay, and a brother, Robert Seay.
He is survived by his wife of 20 years Peggy Rae, a brother Bubba (Marilyn)Seay of Tallahassee, four children, Grace (Terry) Peres, of Palm Coast, Jennifer (Randy) Bennett, John Matthew (Jaime) Seay, and Mark (Abra) Seay, all of Bunnell; two step-children, Karen (David) Gargon of Palm Coast, and Kristen (Ken) James of Daytona Beach; 12 grandchildren, four step-grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, several nieces and nephews and many cousins.