Most people in Palm Coast and Flagler County have no idea what Enterprise Flagler is. Fewer still know what Enterprise Flagler does—including members of the Palm Coast City Council, even though they’ve been appropriating $110,000 in taxpayer dollars to the agency. And including Jim Landon, the Palm Coast city manager, who’d like to be Palm Coast’s (if not the county’s) economic development guru. He’s not been able to get his hands on reports that might show what Enterprise Flagler does. “I’ve asked for them. I never do get them,” Landon said. “I personally think there’s no reason why they can’t do monthly reports.” (Opacity runs in the Enterprise family: Enterprise Florida, the local agency’s distant parent, hasn’t produced an annual report in three years.)
Yet Enterprise Flagler, ostensibly the county’s private-public economic development agency, is the agency fronting the proposed “economic development” tax appearing on the November ballot (a tax that would raise property taxes by 25 cents for every $1,000 in taxable value. The money would be spent on building commercial and industrial buildings and attracting industry into those buildings.) One of the many reasons the proposed tax is having a difficult time winning converts is its official sponsor: For elected officials in the county, speaking derisively of Enterprise Flagler is minor sport. The reason: Enterprise Flagler keeps devouring taxpayer money without showing what it’s doing with it, the most high-paying jobs it’s bankrolled most consistently being its own.
Landon’s remarks about the agency were mild compared to those of members of the Palm Coast City Council, who ripped into Enterprise Flagler during a half-hour discussion prefacing the city’s second budget workshop this morning. Mary DiStefano prompted the discussion when she asked how much Palm Coast contributed to Enterprise Flagler in the current year ($110,000), how much the agency is set to receive next year (15 percent less, or $93,500) , and whether there’s any interest on the council to reduce that sum further, by $20,000. (Enterprise Flagler did not respond to a request for its budget figures.)
“They’re going to expend a certain amount of money to promote the campaign for the 25 cents per thousand, and the amount of money I hear is $20,000,” DiStefano said of Enterprise Flagler’s campaign behind the proposed tax. She wants the agency to use its own staff to campaign for the tax, and spend the $20,000 in verifiable economic development projects—if it has that money to spend on campaigning. DiStefano severely criticized the agency’s chronic lack of transparency. “I look back over six years and I haven’t seen any report coming out.”
“I share Mary’s concern and disappointment in the Flagler enterprise,” Council member Bill Lewis said. “The way it is right now, it takes taxpayer money and wastes it.” Mayor Jon Netts disagreed about “waste,” but was equally critical of the agency’s inability or unwillingness to lay out its successes—or its failures. “There have been some failures, and I think we’ve got to hear about those also,” Netts said, since failures may point to the very needs in the county that Enterprise Flagler is campaigning for, or refocus development efforts where they might be more effective. “We, the county, residents of Flagler County, need to know what their successes are, and what their failures are.” Netts and Landon both sit on the Enterprise Flagler board–Netts as a voting member, Landon not, though both are privy to the agency’s numbers and internal workings, including its secret dealings, with prospecting companies.
“If they’ve had successes, nobody knows about it,” council member Frank Meeker said. “And I believe they have some successes. They’ve been small successes.” Meeker said the promised home runs have never materialized, nor are they likely to, but that the conceptual notion of economic development must remain a priority—including through Enterprise Flagler.
Nevertheless, it’s an indication of the agency’s failure to justify the money it spends or the way it spends it that even a supporter like Meeker is withholding support for the “economic development” tax. “I can’t support what they’re doing unless I’ve got a plan,” he said. And he hasn’t seen that plan.
Enterprise Flagler’s executive director, Greg Rawls, has been scrambling to put together a report of successes (not so much of failures) that he will present to a Flagler County Chamber of Commerce committee on Thursday—the chamber committee that’s steering Rawls, and Enterprise Flagler, in so far as it can, regarding the “economic development” tax, which the chamber’s board endorsed unanimously last spring. Rawls, a consultant the agency hired and the committee are also working on a strategy to pre-empt criticism of the tax, though for now criticism is outrunning attempts at pre-emption. Landon said he would have Enterprise Flagler present its report to the council in an open meeting next week.
The council’s discussion Tuesday morning was only part of the story. Lewis, who sums up Enterprise Flagler as “going all over the place and not getting anything done,” pointed to the real issue in play: “If I were to have a wish, I would wish that we could pull that in house, I think we could do a better job in house and have just one master serving Palm Coast.”
That may very well be Palm Coast’s end game, depending on the results of the “economic development” tax referendum, which won’t merely be a referendum about whether to raise $2 million to spend on commercial buildings. It’s a referendum on the viability of Enterprise Flagler.