“To say that my recent City Council compensation proposal caused a mighty controversy in this community is an understatement,” Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin said at the end of a workshop with his colleagues on Tuesday, before opening the door to scaling back the proposal. He was referring to the council vote last week to raise council members’ salaries from $9,600 a year to $44,700 a year, and the mayor’s salary a few thousand dollars more than that.
The public response since Alfin first proposed the raise on March 1 and again last week has been a crush of public criticism about the amount of the raise, derision about its rationale–namely, that it would attract a better cut of candidates, including more professionals, even though three of the five council members are in that category today–and the launch of a petition campaign to alter the city charter and require all future salaries to be submitted to voters.
The discussion Tuesday was brief. While Alfin said he was willing to lower the amount of the raise, he left it to his four colleagues to propose actual numbers. “The purpose for this discussion,” Alfin said, “is to reconsider and to discuss the last discussion we [had] and to make it perfectly clear, based on your comments, the public’s comments, the overwhelming majority of comments that I have heard: It may be the right moment to discuss reducing the increase that I had originally suggested in favor of something a bit less and more palatable at this moment in time.”
Eddie Branquinho, who has opposed the raise all along, said he’d be willing to go along with a raise that would bring the salaries to $12,000 to $15,000 a year. Nick Klufas, who supports the original raise, has previously proposed phasing it in over time, and on Tuesday said the actual raise could bring salaries to $35,000, more in line with what Flagler County School Board members are paid. (The actual salary currently is 35,949.) That would amount to a 275 percent increase over current salaries. The number seemed to echo with Alfin and Fanelli, who–just appointed to the council and due to leave in November–did not provide a number, only an encomium for much better pay.
Ed Danko liked the original Alfin proposal and would leave it where it is.
Alfin, who frequently hangs fire on his own counteroffers (he’s a Realtor, after all) did not offer up a number, coming closest to echoing the Klufas proposal–but adding to it a benefits package similar to what employees receive. That had not been part of his original proposal. If it were to become part of the package, the actual cost to taxpayers would slightly exceed the original Alfin proposal, since benefits tack on roughly a third of the cost of salaries.
The council last week voted 4-1 to approve Alfin’s numbers: a 365 percent increase for council members, bringing their salary to $44670, not including the $2,100 annual allowance they each get for gas and cell phone service. So the actual compensation would be $46,770. For the mayor, the raise would be 307 percent, bringing the salary to $46,470, or $48,570 with the car and cell phone benefit.
“The justification for my support is still the same,” Alfin said of his raise proposal, before again defending it. “Palm Coast was different years ago–smaller and less complex,” he said. “Our next council must be called upon to update all that’s been done in the past, with a much broader skill set to govern with smart growth, expanding economic goals and enhanced health care, education and needs. If Palm Coast keeps moving swiftly in this direction, so must City Council.”
He then presented a multi-point defense, again short on evidence, saying for example that higher salaries “may subdue some of the toxic toxicity” that has hampered council meetings, that “the original concept of a part-time” council is “outdated,” and that better pay could mean better council members.
“The reason I make that statement is because I would like to open up this discussion today to our members of City Council to discuss at what level they might feel it’d be appropriate for City Council compensation to be changed,” Alfin said, opening the door for a rollback.
Branquinho said “this astronomical raise” was changing the rules of the game in the middle of the game. He favors a ballot proposal. Otherwise, the council would be snubbing the public. “And if anybody hasn’t seen the reactions and the discussions, then some of us over here are kind of sleeping,” he said. No one he’s heard or talked to agrees with the proposed raise, he said. “And once again, I really do not take it as a compliment. I’m borderline offended that saying that if anybody gets a better pay, they will do a better job than me. I’m actually offended. I don’t think that is a compliment,” he said, directing his criticism at Alfin.
“This is the wrong time to do it,” he said, but he would be in agreement with salaries raised to the $12,000-$15,000 range.
“I would also like to discuss possibly phasing our raises,” Klufas said, citing the school board salaries. “But do I see a path where we can potentially have more viable candidates because of the salary increase? Absolutely.”
Danko said he voted for the increase as it was last week and would do so again. “I think we did the right thing for the future,” Danko said. “And you know, we have more people here upset about the Green Lion than about this pay compensation. So I’m not that concerned about it. I’m willing to stay where we’re at and move forward with what we did. I think it’s a good move.” (He was referring to the Green Lion Cafe at the city-owned Palm Harbor Golf Club. When the city, largely at Danko’s urging, voted to sever the lease with the Cafe, it unleashed a wave of public opposition that forced the council to backtrack. The opposition was, in fact, louder and more numerous than that generated by the salary proposal, though the Green Lion misstep did not trigger a petition to change the charter.)
Fanelli could have been the deciding vote at that point. But he did not propose a number, other than hinting that he might support something of a lesser size. “I would be amenable to looking at what the appropriate compensation is and how to roll it out. I do hear that the community is concerned about the amount of the compensation,” he said. He then spoke of the proposal from the perspective of a full-time employee in a demanding job (he works at the school district’s central office, where he is in charge of student services.) “It is costing me both time and money to serve the citizens of this community, which I don’t think it’s fair to whoever serves in the seat after me,” Fanelli said. “I have thought about if I was interested in this seat in the future, not in this upcoming election, but in the future. How could I balance that. It would require me to maybe look at a different role, a different job either within the school district or elsewhere, probably a position that was less demanding of my time and money in order to be able to give what this position requires right now.”
The closest Alfin came to revealing where he stood was when he said that the majority of residents are not “familiar with the job itself” and the time it takes, leaving it to council members to make the decision on their own salaries. That suggests he will be pushing for the higher end of the proposal.
There’s nothing irregular about altering the ordinance the council voted on last week. Contrary to a statement Alfin made, the ordinance does not have to return for a second reading next week, or any week for that matter. It may be held back for weeks, or brought back. But the amount cited in the ordinance can be changed–and voted on at second reading.
Branquinho proposed postponing the vote until mid-June, around the time of a deadline for the petition Michael Martin–an elected official in his own right, at the East Flagler Mosquito Control District–is circulating to alter the charter. Alfin dismissed the idea. “I’m not aware of the circulation or the number of signatures on any such petition nor am I aware of any way to validate the signatures on a petition,” he said, though it’s the city clerk’s job to validate the petitions, and the council was made aware of the effort last week by Martin himself.
By charter, a salary change cannot be approved later than six months before the next election, at least not if that salary is to become effective after that election, and the council seems to be in an inexplicable hurry to get that salary increase approved now. So it will appear on the council’s agenda again next week, with the actual raise to be filled in–if different than what the council approved last week.