Mayor David Alfin’s proposal to more than quadruple his and fellow-Palm Coast City Council members’ salaries drew stinging rebukes from the public at a council meeting this morning.
The public stood the proposal in contrast with inflation, historically high gas prices, comparatively stagnant fixed incomes and the average local wage to paint a council either oblivious or indifferent to ordinary Palm Coast residents’ economic conditions. The proposed council salaries would be $8,000 more than the average Flagler County wage, $10,000 more for the mayoral salary, according to Daytona State College figures.
The manner in which Alfin first launched his proposal–it had not been placed on the agenda, it happened at the very end of a night meeting two weeks ago, most of the audience had left–and the rationale behind, it, particularly the unfounded assumption that it would draw a better cut of candidates, also drew sharp criticism.
Adding to the more than hour-long public comment segment, not all of which was devoted to the subject, were claims and counterclaims that turned into a salad of falsehoods, misinformation, misunderstandings and vagueness of which neither council members or their attorney were immune.
Council members are paid $9,600 a year. The mayor is paid $11,400. They get additional communications and transportation stipends. Alfin on March 1 proposed raising the salaries to $44,670 for council members and $46,470 for the mayor. The proposal will be presented to the council as an ordinance for the council to vote on. Voters will have no say.
“We deserve sneaky, underhanded, dishonest leadership, Mayor Alfin? Because that’s exactly what you have given us in sneaking through a vote on a very contentious issue to award yourself a 365 percent increase in your current salaries,” said Mike Martin, a Lake Success resident who recently served on the city’s appointed redistricting committee and is an elected member of the East Flagler Mosquito Control District. He was first of 11 speakers who opposed the raises.
“You achieved this by deliberately leaving this issue off the agenda on March 1 and bringing it up under other business at the end of the meeting,” Martian continued. “‘Other business’ as you well know is designed to deal with last-minute issues that arise that are too late to be included on the public agenda. It was never meant for knowingly contentious, serious issues.” The mayor, Martin said, should have raised the issue at a workshop. “Shame on you,” he continued. “You have acted like every sleazy and dishonest politician has acted. If you had believed in your arguments for this raise, you would have raised this issue publicly and placed it on the agenda…. Is this open and transparent government? Hell no.”
The next two speakers, Sue Urban and Eugene Holland, said the raise should be a question for voters to decide at the ballot box, not for the council to decide for itself, or if it were, that it should be a full council (one seat is vacant at the moment due to the resignation of Victor Barbosa) and the amount sought should be “reasonable.”
“Citizens of this city are struggling to pay gasoline prices in excess of four dollars a gallon,” Holland said. “These are folks that have to drive to and from work, nobody subsidizes their extra costs, and for the council members to vote themselves an increase, this is un-American for my way of thinking.”
That’s when the confusion over ballot measures started. Council member Nick Klufas tried to “preempt some of this” by claiming that the raise proposal would be on the ballot. He went on to say that the council’s vote was merely to start the process of putting the matter before voters, as supposedly required by charter. But he was remembering a former version of the charter, since amended.
The charter is clear on compensation: “The Council members and Mayor shall receive compensation as established by ordinance. Such compensation shall not take effect until the date of commencement of the terms of Council members elected at the next regularly scheduled election that follows the adoption of said ordinance by at least six months.”
Alfin did not immediately correct him, and Klufas’s statement changed the approach of a subsequent commenter who, still opposed to the raise, said he was was thankful it would go before voters. Only then Alfin asked Jennifer Nix, the city attorney, to “clarify” Klufas’s comment. She specified–not too clearly–that the city attorney had been directed to “draft an ordinance to be considered and placed upon an agenda for discussion. So it wasn’t a ballot vote.”
The statement’s wonkishness was vague. It did not explicitly state that the council wanted to discuss it in order to give itself a raise, leaving just enough room to give the public the impression that the council would eventually place it on the ballot. Alfin did not seek further clarification that was obviously needed: “It’s nice to find out it’s going to a ballot,” a speaker said after Nix’s explanation.
An hour into the public comment period, it was a resident who put it clearly to the council–that there would be no ballot measure, period, and that the council would vote itself the raise. “We’re clear now that it’s going to be an ordinance, and that it’s not going to be on the ballot,” he said.
Nix at that point read the wording of the charter on compensation. Klufas was still confused, referring to the time when the charter used to state the mayor’s and council members’ salaries. But that provision (which you can see here) was eliminated from the charter in 2018, if rather stealthily: what charter change was approved by voters in 2018 referred to updating ballot language. It never explicitly stated that the council members’ salaries would vanish from the charter. In an interview after the meeting, Klufas said when he voted for the charter changes he certainly didn’t read language that spoke to the elimination of specified salaries.
So Klufas, like most voters, had no idea the wording had been deleted. Later in the segment Klufas tried to explain that he had not meant to deceive the audience.
“Now I’m a little more confused,” a resident said after all the explanations. He wasn’t alone, and Nix, who herself looked confused on several occasions, did not know the history of the charter to fill in the blanks. Bill Reischmann, the attorney who has represented the city for well over a decade (from the same firm as Nix’s), is preparing to retire, and is training new attorneys in his role. He had drafted the language of the charter amendments in 2018, and he could have explained those changes (and the vague language). Today’s confusion was a stark example of the institutional history the city will be losing with his departure (a loss compounded by the revelation later in the same meeting that Fire Chief Jerry Forte will retire in October after 32 years’ service for the city).
The criticism of the raise proposal, however, was relentless, with residents using words like “exorbitant,” “shocked,” “excessive,” “offensive,” “extremely poor decision,” and one making a modest proposal: “If you truly believe that you deserve $45,000 per year, I suggest you do a ride along with a Flagler County Sheriff because that is their starting pay.”
Shadowing it all were the numerous misrepresentations–almost none malicious, and all reflecting the degree to which the proposal was sprung seemingly half-baked, if baked at all, with no groundwork taking public reactions into account. Which residents had every reason to interpret as contempt. As a rookie move, Alfin, just eight months into a tenure that until now had been faultless, couldn’t have done much worse, and today residents made him pay. Lucky for him, Forte’s announcement diverted some of the fire.
“There’s inflation going on right now if you have looked around,” a woman wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “PALM COAST” said. “It’s like, what have you done for us lately? Really, you built multi-multifamily affordable housing. Okay, renters don’t pay the taxes. We’re the ones paying the taxes.”
The resident was repeating a common, coded (if not bigoted) and false assumption, renters in this town often being associated with minorities, the poor and public assistance. In fact, renters, like commercial property owners, not only pay property taxes through their rent, they actually pay a far higher property tax. Renters and commercial property owners subsidize homesteaded property owners, whose taxes are kept artificially low through the Save Our Homes cap on property tax increases. (The resident might have seen arresting documentation of the fact in today’s agenda packet, which includes a chart of what Palm Coast taxpayers do and do not pay in property taxes. Residential properties have a combined taxable value of $7.5 billion. But between the twin tax breaks of the homestead exemption and Save Our Homes, $2.6 billion of that, or more than a third of the taxable value, is exempt. Agricultural, industrial and commercial properties, which include rentals, don;t benefit from those breaks.)
Other people addressing the council fused the raise with the “nonsense” of too much development, too much traffic, too much rezoning. One raised the council’s just-approved 47 percent increase in garbage rates before questioning the central plank of Alfin’s rationale for a raise: “Is it to attract qualified people? Really? Are you saying that you all aren’t qualified?”
A 77-year-old resident extended the criticism to the administration as he falsely claimed that Palm Coast’s city manager makes “more than four times what the city manager makes in Tampa.” She does not. Tampa does not have a city manager. The city has a strong-mayor form of government, where the mayor has some of the same roles as a city manager. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor makes $175,655, according to her spokesperson. The city administration’s chief of staff makes $215,000. Palm Coast City Manager Denise Bevan is currently making $161,000. (That’s her salary since she was named interim. Her new contract as the permanent manager is still in negotiations. It is unlikely to be much more than Castor’s salary, or anywhere near four times that of any city manager in a municipality the size of Palm Coast’s.) On the other hand, Tampa, which does have a population more than four times that of Palm Coast, pays its council members $52,000, or 13 cents per resident. Palm Coast council members’ salaries currently cost 11 cents per resident. Alfin’s proposal would raise that top 50 cents per resident.
Dennis McDonald, the perennial government critic often prone to error, and who still owes Flagler County government well over $70,000 over a frivolous claim he filed, told Alfin that he was “trying to compare apples and oranges” by comparing the salaries of municipal elected officials to those of county commissioners or school board members. (McDonald is married to School Board member Janet McDonald.)
McDonald said, correctly, that county and school board salaries are set by the Legislature. But he then said, incorrectly, that “if you’re in Miami Dade, and you’re a board of county commissioner, you get paid the same as you would in Martin or some other county.” In fact, those salaries are set according to population. A county commissioner in Miami-Dade makes $106,176. A county commissioner in Martin County makes $69,644, and in Flagler, $59,637.
McDonald was on arguably more documented ground when he disputed Alfin’s claim that higher salaries would draw a better cut of candidates. He compared the quality of city officials on the elected boards of Bunnell and Flagler Beach, whose salaries are similar to those serving in Palm Coast, to the salaries of county commissioners, citing Bunnell mayor Catherine Robinson and Flagler Beach’s Jane Mealy and Ken Bryan, all of whom are among the county’s most seasoned and governing-savvy elected officials.
“So your argument just doesn’t hold water,” he said, before reminding the council of the county commission’s streak of disastrous real estate deals over the last few years. “We can start with the sheriff’s department. We can go to Sears, we can go on and on, we go to Bing’s Landing. How about that one?” McDonald said, naming deals that were in fact boondoggles by any objective measure, and have left taxpayers reeling with costs. “So when you compare yourself to those guys, don’t do it, because they’ve got a really bad track record. And if you want to get paid more money, then go run for the county commission.” (He did not help his credibility moments later when he jumped back to the podium and mumbled something about “what’s stealing our elections” before addressing a different topic.)
A woman arguing against Alfin’s proposal told him he was “appointed,” not elected–also an inaccuracy. Alfin was elected last July in a special election and has nearly three years left on his term.
Klufas’s discussion of the ballot-or-no-ballot issue aside, none of the council members addressed the raise proposal with the exception of Eddie Branquinho. He capped the public comment period with a brief rejection of it. “If it was up to me, there would not be an increase in our pays,” Branquinho said. “Any type of raises or anything at this moment at this point, I don’t think is appropriate.”