“Our best economic development is by having a financially stable school district,” Andy Dance said. “It’s important that we go out as a unified vote.” With those words, the school board member completed a spring-to-summer journey that took him from opposing a proposed school levy that would raise about $2 million next year, to approving it almost wholeheartedly. The Flagler County School Board voted unanimously to place the levy proposal on the November 2 ballot.
Board member Trevor Tucker, who was undecided when the board revisited the issue last week, convincingly joined the majority, too.
- Andy Dance’s Two Masters: Voting for a Tax at the Chamber, Against One at the School Board
- How the Chamber’s Tax Proposal Undermines Schools, Cities and the County
- Hell Freezes Over: Flagler Chamber Wants To Hike Your Taxes
Dance had opposed the school levy principally because he thought its timing was not right, and because he feared (correctly) that it would clash with another levy on the November ballot—a new tax proposal ostensibly designed to spur economic development by using tax dollars to finance commercial buildings that would be occupied by private industry. That tax was officially put forth by Enterprise Flagler, the private-public economic development partnership largely controlled by the chamber. But the tax proposal gets its momentum from the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, where Dance, as a chamber board member, was part of the chamber’s unanimous vote endorsing it.
Dance’s switch is significant as a bellwether of public opinion: Not only is Dance’s popular following considerable, especially among conservative voters; but his statements about economic development undercut the chamber’s arguments about where the immediate focus on economic development should be. Dance was explicit on that score: “The school district is the largest employer in the county,” he said. “When the school district is sick, the county is sick. As far as economic development is concerned, if we don’t support the schools, we’re going to see an opposite, the unemployment rate rising even more.”
The school levy wouldn’t be a new tax on property owners, who are already paying the $0.25 per $1,000 in taxable value (or about $31 a year on a $150,000 homesteaded house). But beginning next year, state law requires school boards to ask voters’ permission to maintain that portion of revenue boards had been ensuring by their own majority votes previously. The school district thinks the $2 million is critical if the district is to minimize expected budget shortfalls in the next two years. The shortfall next year could go past $7 million, once federal stimulus dollars run out and should state revenue continue to fall, as I is expected to.
The “economic development” tax has had a rough go of it since the chamber and Enterprise Flagler launched the campaign to get it on the ballot in May–first because of the muddled message behind its purpose, then because of its timing and packaging: The tax was being proposed in a difficult economic environment and under the banner of an agency–Enterprise Flagler–that has little credibility. And its backers were proposing it ahead of county, city and school levies that were heading for the ballot regardless over the next couple of years, effectively jeopardizing the success of those levies by adding to the tax-stacking effect on the ballot.
When Tucker explained why he was undecided last month, he said he’d first gauge what the business community and the “economic development” community backing the Enterprise-chamber tax was thinking about the levy’s success. His investigation over, he said he heard support for the economic development tax only form its core organizers, and decidedly strong opposition to it, even from the business community and the Rotary-type crowd, which he said is giving the tax virtually no chance of passage. The school levy got a more encouraging response, convincing Tucker that it could be a winnable issue.
The school board agreed to prepare a focused campaign to sell the school levy to community groups and the broader public. Board members said the district can stand on its achievements, including fiscal discipline and job cuts in recent years that attest to careful management. One board member, Sue Dickinson, still believes the tax will fail, at least this fall, but she suggested that even if it does so, it could make it back on the ballot again soon.