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County Approves Big Spending on Tourism Office Staff and Rigs and Hints at Raising Tax

| April 19, 2016

matt dunn craig coffey

Tourism Director Matt Dunn, left, and County Administrator Craig Coffey presenting various proposals to the county commission at a workshop this morning. (© FlaglerLive)

It is as if county government’s absorption of the tourism office last fall included a drunken-sailor provision in the fine print: the Flagler County Commission certainly spent money like one on its tourism office Tuesday. The office was previously housed under the umbrella of the county chamber of commerce.

In one of those now-routine, quick-action special meetings immediately following a workshop on the subject (thus depriving the public any chance to mull over proposals or mobilize an opposition at a meeting scheduled with more notice, and shading the meeting from television viewers but not live audio) the commission voted to expand the staff of the tourism office from five to six full-timers, buy nearly $300,000 worth of stadium-like equipment such as floodlights, a stage and bleachers that have little to do with promoting the county, and suggested that they may want to raise the local tourism sales tax from 4 to 5 percent to generate more money for more spending.

County Commission Chairman Barbara Revels signaled that she would be opposed to that last proposal, which was not before commissioners today.

The tax, a sales tax supplement that applies to all short-term rentals, motel and hotel room bookings and the like, was last raised in December 2010 and has generated record revenue every year since. But Matt Dunn, the director of the tourism office, is a proponent of the higher tax as it would further expand the office’s revenue. Much of that revenue has been shifted to so-called “discretionary” spending in the form of direct subsidies to private organizations, many of them for profit, that bring sports tournaments or conferences to local venues and resorts.

The stepped-up spending started last fall when Dunn was awarded a $12,000 raise, a 17 percent bump that brought his salary to to $82,000 a year (his predecessors, both women, were kept at $65,000), while three other staffers at the tourism office shared raises of a combined $11,000 between them.

The $300,000 binge on sports-field and stage equipment is another form of subsidy to organizations holding such events. It’s not yet clear how the equipment would be available for use by local organizations—or any organization. On occasion, the tourism office has had to rent lighting “towers,” though not bleachers.

“We have to develop more detailed policies on some of that,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said, though he added that some rental structure will be in place. “There’s going to be a cost to maintain some of that equipment, there’s going to be a cost to set up some of that equipment, to move some of that equipment.” He added: “We do not want amateur hour setting it up or blowing the fuses. We want people properly setting it up and taking it down, and we want it properly maintained.” It will be the responsibility of county employees.

“The equipment would be available to our various municipalities for the cost of covering expenses, the staff time to move it around, gasoline, wear and tear, etc.,” Dunn said, offering events such as Rock ‘n Ribfest and Flagler Beach’s First Fridays as examples.

This morning’s special-meeting actions aside, the commission is going slower on proposed policy changes that affect the tourism office’s various money pots. By law, the commission can only approve such policy changes after holding public hearings.

Dunn and Coffey had presented the money requests and some proposed policy changes at last month’s meeting of the Tourist Development Council, the volunteer board made up of local tourism business representatives—many of whom benefit directly from the TDC subsidies—and representatives from Palm Coast and Flagler Beach. The TDC is chaired by Revels. The panel approved the Dunn-Coffey proposals with little to no opposition.

One set of proposals got more resistance today from commissioners, especially from Nate McLaughlin: Dunn’s proposal to tighten restrictions on smaller community groups requesting grants, and to cap their ability to seek those grants at three years. McLaughlin was opposed both to the cap and to some of the more restrictive requirements. “You’re closing a door that you don’t want to close,” McLaughlin said of the cap. “There’s other ways to adjust that.”

By morning’s end, the cap was gone, and the restrictions applied, but not as much as Dunn wanted.

For example, Dunn—who has publicly spoken of his impatience with what he calls “pushing paper”—wanted to eliminate the $2,500 annual grants or subsidies to organizations that in exchange pledge to fill 25 to 74 local hotel room nights. Dunn wanted to eliminate all grants for any event with fewer than 100 such nights. McLaughlin was not willing to go along, but he agreed to a floor of 50 room nights. Dunn also wanted to lower the amounts of so-called quality-of-life grants that go to small, local organizations, most of them cultural or non-profit organizations form whom hundreds of dollars make a difference. The minimum current award is $1,500. Dunn wanted it lowered to $1,000. McLaughlin was opposed, even if it meant—as was Dunn’s argument—making more such grants available.

“Then bump the budget,” McLaughlin said. “There’s money in that fund, in that tax fund. If you want to hit that many people, then bump the budget.” McLaughlin eventually agreed to a middle ground on the quality of life grant: $1,250.

The discussion on raising the tourism sales tax, also known as the bed tax, was part of two tangents on the subject. In the first, Dunn said the county will seek to “self-collect” the revenue, rather than the current arrangement, which has the state collect the revenue then redistribute it to the county. Dunn claims that based on a locally policed system, revenue could rise by 20 percent if it were self-collected. Of course, self-collection also means a likely further expansion of the local bureaucracy to administer and police the system.

In the second tangent, prompted by Commissioner George Hanns, the higher tax is “something as we struggle for funds for these programs and even struggle for advertising dollars,” Coffey said, “it’s something we want to consider in the future, but it takes a supermajority to pass, so it takes four out of five of this board.” (Where the county’s tourism office has been “struggling” to fund its programs, even as its staff is expanding and its revenue increasing, was left unclear.)

Hanns said a supermajority would not be difficult for the commission to muster.

“There are different opinions on raisjng the rate,” Revels corrected him.

“You would be opposed to that?” Hanns asked.

“Maybe. I voted against the last one,” revels said. “We just got an award in Flagler Beach for being one of the most affordable destinations, by Trip Advisor, and affordable means that people, their total outlay of expenses, is what they consider. It’s not in front of us right now, we’re not discussing that right now, but I think that needs a lot of consideration.

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17 Responses for “County Approves Big Spending on Tourism Office Staff and Rigs and Hints at Raising Tax”

  1. GY says:

    Keep it up..Soon Flagler County will be all rich folk…like me. ;-)

  2. Vote them out says:

    No more monkeys jumping on the Bed !!!!

    Get out and VOTE 2016

  3. My thoughts says:

    What a disappointment that Dunn was hired as a County employee, especially after the Princess Place Extreme Race “proposal”. Coffee better have a good auditor in place, as the reporting of that incident sounded as if kickbacks were involved.

    You want to see our future? Go visit Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville. And ask about the crime rates, traffic, “small town charm”, etc. We can’t have it both ways.

  4. Ben Hogarth says:

    I will just say that being one of the most affordable destinations is not the only indicator of an attractive destination. It would be wise to raise the tax on tourism by a simple and final 1% (5th total percent levied). It would be even more wise to be critical of the manner in which those dollars are spent. A model that has been successful encompasses a couple of “legacy” special events that promote greater tourism and many smaller and regular events that promote community interaction and local tourism.

    Locally collecting and administering the tax would be a an unwise, huge liability and burden – which is why the current system is well worth the cost of the Department of Revenue handling audits and administration. Just my two cents

  5. Wishful thinking says:

    Not a dime for road beautification or code enforcement to enhance our gateways but $82,000 salary for a self serving team of egos. Sickening

  6. Mark says:

    At least a drunken sailor stops spending when they are cut off.

  7. Concerned Citizen says:

    Sounds like Dunn only wants to cater to the big events. Lets just forget all of the small venues that keep things going throughout the year. if it isn’t Rocking Rib Fest or a sneakily arranged race he isn’t interested.

    I find it interesting that we have a failing communications infrastructure and the county can’t vote to fix it but they can sure find a way to spend 300,000 on non essential items. Gotta love priorities.

    Folks please get out and vote. I know I intend to. We don’t need incumbents that keep doing the same damn thing over and over again. Time to get new faces in there that might hopefully do what is needed to get done. We need change from the Sheriffs Office all the way to the City and YOU can make that happen !!

  8. YankeeExPat says:

    Someone Please call Ryan Seacrest, or the BRAVO Production Executives. as our County/ City government has so much Entertainment Value. There is Comedy, Deception, Greed and Narcissism enough for an hour show. As Teresa Giudice was known to say “we have all the ingredients-es.”.

    “Pee-ons of Palm Coast”
    “Fools of Flagler County”

  9. OldSeaDog says:


    “Any damn fool can circumnavigate the world sober. It takes a really good sailor to do it drunk” – Sir Francis Chichester


  10. Kelly says:

    And everyone wonders why the deputies’ morale is low?? Someone gets a $12,000 raise and 3 others get an $11,000 raise between them??? Most of the deputies got a measly 1% while some got nothing!! What is wrong with this picture??

  11. Kim says:

    Well it’s pretty impressive what the TDC has accomplished! Bloat, big salaries, more county employees, fun toys bought by taxpayers! What’s next? Limousines to work? Bigger offices? Plusher carpets?

  12. BOB S. says:

    I live in the Esection our Rods have not been paved in13yrs PLEASE PEOPLE GET OUT AND VOTE THEM OUT BEFORE ITS TO LATE..Landon Coffey Netts Revels ARE JUST A FEW THAT SHOULD BE IVESTAGATED AND GET JAIL TIME.

  13. Sherry says:

    In my mind, Dunn and Coffey need to be reined in and have their job descriptions and authority limits documented in detail by the BOCC. . . especially after the Princess Place debacle! Unfortunately, apparently our BOCC does NOT represent our citizens and seem they fine with continuing to throw our tax payers hard earned dollars at these two! This is a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. Step up BOCC and please do your job!,

  14. Kim says:

    Here’s a quote from FlaglerLive’s article when Dunn was hired. “His aim here will be to continue the work started by Turner, but also to forge new ground with eco-tourism, heritage tourism and in the so-called “SMERF” market—the world of social, military, educational, religious and fraternal groups, whose annual meetings, reunions and board retreats can be lucrative for any market that attracts them. ״

    How’s that ecotourism/ heritage tourism going Matt?

  15. Knightwatch says:

    Wait a minute … someone show me just how this money is well spent. Show me the value and probability of expected return to the county. And even if they can convince me there is an adequate return, show me that it is good for our citizens who just may not want whatever the investment will bring.

    I want a vote!

  16. tom says:

    Of what value are the County Commissioners? They seem to not care.

  17. Pete says:

    Those who we trust with our tax dollars do what they want. Our county commissioners do not provide over site over the county administrator. Hopefully in 2016 Revels, Hanns and Ericksen will NOT be reelected! It is time for a change. We needs leaders who represent us, the tax paying people who pay for their salaries and benefits.

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