You might need medically-assisted math to figure out what and how the Flagler County Commission did today to get out of the budget-slashing hole it created for itself last week. Especially as some commissioners themselves did not seem to know why they were meeting again this morning, and didn’t want to be there.
They were meeting again because at what was supposed to be a routine, formal hearing last Wednesday to adopt a tax rate and budget the commission and the administration had worked on for the previous seven months, Commissioner Don O’Brien opted to scramble the process and the county’s long-term goals by proposing a last-minute tax rate reduction with a set of four conditions, each one further burdening the math and means of recalibrating the budget fairly between the county and the five constitutional officers it funds–the sheriff, the elections supervisor, the tax collector, the clerk of court and the property appraiser. (See: “In Latest Switch, County Will Cut Tax Rate, Fund Sheriff’s Full Request, and Take a $1.9 Million Hit on Budget.”)
O’Brien built a level of unfairness into his proposal: he wanted the Sheriff’s Office or any public safety-related county operations spared any budget cuts form the trimmed property tax rate, shifting that burden to others. He wanted to appropriate an extra $700,000 to the sheriff. And he wanted to preserve all raises. So the proportionate cuts from remaining departments and constitutional officers would be higher, especially for the elections supervisor and the clerk of court, who had no room for cuts. A clerk official said this morning three people would have to be fired to make the math work.
The O’Brien proposal–which Commissioners Greg Hansen and Joe Mullins supported–has not drawn much public interest because it is more of a political stunt than a change that would give property owners visible tax relief. A homeowner with a $200,000 house and a $50,000 homestead exemption paid $1,223 in county taxes this year. O’Brien’s proposal cuts that homeowner’s county tax bill by $15 for the year, or four gallons’ worth of gas at today’s prices.
O’Brien and fellow-commissioners like Mullins and Hansen wanted to be able to say that they reduced the tax rate, even though it doesn’t reduce the official tax increase under state law (a tax increase most homesteaded homeowners will not see).
But for county operations, that almost invisible tax cut, aggregated over tens of thousands of properties, adds up to real money paying for real county services, and requires the $1.9 million to $2.4 million reduction in the budget County Administrator Heidi Petito had prepared. So the symbolic move was more for their image than either for taxpayers’ benefit or for the health of county services: it was more self-promotion than sound budgeting, especially considering the timing of O’Brien’s stunt.
The county administration spent the last several days reconfiguring the budget to come up with options cutting it ahead of today’s meeting, for the commissioners’ approval. It had no room to maneuver past today. The county must advertise its property tax in a newspaper ahead of its final budget hearing. The deadline to meet the requirement is on Tuesday.
Astoundingly, Hansen and O’Brien weren’t interested in having a discussion today, or hearing the options the administrator had prepared, presumably because they did not want a public airing of the cuts they are causing, with them sitting at the dais.
“I think we’re done. I’m not sure what we’re doing or what we have to do today,” Hansen said at the beginning of the meeting.
“I’m sure the administrator had a presentation, and if she’s asking for direction from us, at least we want to give them that courtesy,” Commissioner Andy Dance said.
“Direction of what?” O’Brien said.
“Yeah, well, you know, we’re not supposed to be directing staff,” Joe Mullins, the chairman of the commission for a few more weeks, said, erroneously: it is the commission’s responsibility to set tax and budget policy.
O’Brien was not getting it. “I just want to know direction of what,” he said. “The question that we’re asking right now is, the millage rate and the trim notice. Is that not already a done issue?”
So finance director John Brower gently schooled him. “What you’re asked to do each year is adopt the millage rates and the budget. By changing the millage rates that obviously changes the budget,” Brower said, further explaining that the advertisement needs to show to the public “what our budget is.” It’s not just a tax rate number. That helped clarify things for the commissioner.
“That’s exactly what this is for,” Petito told the commissioners as she presented the different “funding gap scenarios.” In the end, commissioners adopted the option that will require the county to face a $1.9 million cut, using $600,000 from its reserves to close that gap, and making $1.3 million in service reductions. The $600,000 from the reserves is actually new, unexpected money, thanks to a glitch at the property appraiser’s office that effected the tax bills of new construction. When the property appraiser recalculated new construction in the last few weeks, it yielded an extra $600,000 in revenue to the county. But a $1.3 million cut remains.
It will entail cuts at the county library of $92,000 (7 percent of the library’s budget), including security, $152,000 in cuts at the county’s Health and Human Services Department, over half a million dollars in capital improvements, $56,000 in public transportation, and so on.
Nicole Buckles, the assistant chief operations officer at the clerk of court, put the dilemma this way: “If I award the COLA [cost of living] increase that was initially indicated by county administration, I will be forced to terminate three employees. If I completely remove the COLA increase from consideration, I don’t only have to terminate one employee.” The county will avoid that either if it dips into its reserves or if certain amounts of money unused in the budget of constitutionals, such as the sheriff, returns to the county budget.
Elections Supervisor Kaiti Lenhart took time from poll worker training to address the commission, her question underscoring the extent to which the commission’s derailing of the budget last week affected constitutionals and departments: “I just need you to give me a number of what my budget is,” Lenhart said. She was starting the year at a deficit, cutting training and other elements for employees. “We need to have fully trained and experienced” employees, she said, and “all the opportunities I can give my employees to be the best leaders in their jobs and do the best that they can as far as conducting elections for this county.”
None of the cuts necessitated by last week’s switch seemed to leave much of an impression on O’Brien, the author of the switch. Rather, he petulantly objected to the use of the word “cut,” saying it was a reduction in the budget from a planned increase. He is right. But Commissioner Dave Sullivan noted that inflation has neutralized O’Brien’s argument. And O’Brien was neglecting to mention his own conditions on his Wednesday motion, which exacerbated the administration’s difficulties in rewriting the budget.
“None of this is optimal for anybody,” Commissioner Andy Dance said. “We spent seven months working on a budget only for it to be blown up at the last minute. So here we are trying to make things work.” He was particularly struck by the cut to public transportation. “The people that rely on transportation, I just feel that’s really tough to continue to keep that position open. But that’s a hard one to explain to the public.” The cuts entail keeping positions frozen rather than firing people.
“As you move forward, what is it going to look like next year? What is it going to look like the following year?” Petito cautioned commissioners. “That’s why I think it’s important that we have a budget strategy meeting starting in November, looking at alternative revenue sources, looking at different ways and opportunities to become more effective and efficient.” The administrator betrayed notable frustration with the message the commission was sending: that its own strategic plan–its goals–“is worthless, it’s going to sit on a shelf and collect dust, it’s not going to do anything.” It was a devastating statement, delivered in Petito’s disarmingly deadpan voice.
“The one thing that comes to mind here is everybody’s feeling the pain except the sheriff,” Hansen said in one of the more remarkable statements of the morning: Hansen had been among the three-commissioner majority approving exactly that exemption for the sheriff (which the sheriff had n oit asked for to the extent that the O’Brien-Hansen-Mullins vote enabled). “And I would encourage the sheriff over the next few months to really take a hard look at your budget. And maybe you can cut a Mustang or cut an unmarked vehicle or cut some things like that to help us.” In fact, through yet more complicated budgetary maneuverings, the sheriff, the supervisor of elections and the clerk of court all may be contributing some dollars to the county’s bottom line in budgeted amounts they may not end up spending. The sheriff cited about $150,000, possibly more. Lenhart’s office will be giving back about $100,000.
The final outcome was a haze of recalculations, bottoming out to a $1.3 million cut to the county’s budget and possibly limiting cuts at the elections supervisor’s office and the clerk of court’s operations. But much of that will become clearer only as the budget year gets under way: as with so much else resulting from commissioners’ last-minute improvisations, the consequences have yet to be fully vetted.
County Administrator Heidi Petito’s Presentation Monday Morning (See previous presentations here and here):FY23 Budget Workshop 09122022
John McDonnell says
It is truly amazing that an elected official can throw a wrench into the budget planning at the last minute. Considering the growth of the county and the increased revenue expected, it is surprising that county services would be cut, especially nwithout planning but department heads. The political maneuvering in Flagler county shows the lack of respect certain elected officials have for both their position of responsibility and their commitment to the citizens, their constituents, of the county.
I am starting to realize the County Commissioners along wth PC Council are incompetent to run anything let a lone any government. Please people vote the idiots out of office.
LAW ABIDING CITIZEN says
O’Brien needs to go just like we voted Mullins out. This is one of the past few meetings that he opened his stiff upper lip mouth throwing a wrench in the budget at the 12 o’clock hour with his clever manipulating of preserving salaries for himself and his cronies while we as citizens will suffer the consequences of the CUTTING of public services, that right O’Brien it’s the CUTTING of services for the public sector. And then has the audacity to not want to address this at the follow up meeting thus using a political stunt by making us taxpayers think that we are getting a significant reduction in our property taxes. He is all smoke and mirrors and he thinks that he is smarter with his snobbish arrogant attitude than us citizens. I say we call him out publicly and vote him out the next round.
I ditto Law Abiding Citizen’s comment. The departments that have the smallest budgets, who are very important in community outreach, should not be cut at all. I am referring to Health and Human Services as well as the Library. To cut the security from the library is an atrocity. The commissioners have no regard for the people in need. What is more mind boggling is that these departments will be in a dire situation with a recession on the brink!
Republicans in control. When they ruin the city and county probably the voters will wake up and elect mature caring people.
J. Michael Kelley says
A number of years ago, prior to any of the current Board of County Commissioners, and under a past County Administrator, I was asked to Chair a committee of business owners to review the County Budget. It was aptly called the “Economic Review Committee”, and I might add was entirely voluntary. After spending hours and days in meetings, we came up with a recommendation that the budget had areas to reduce of about one million dollars without actually causing any harm to services. As I am sure you would guess, not a single one of the recommendations was instituted. I for one say thank you to those commissioners who voted to allow me to keep a little more of my money. I have actually seen the waste.
Unfortunately, the citizens of Flagler County just gave Commissioner Hansen another term. Hopefully Sullivan and O’Brien can get shown the same door that with any luck (and a touch of schadenfreude ) will whack Mullins on the ass on his way out. Shameful, grandstanding behavior that winds up hurting the people in the county that need services the most.
I call BS says
This guy’s are derailed the budgets because Mullins their boy is out. They want to make it harder for the next Commissioner.
O’Brian, Sullivan and Mullins you won’t be missed.
O’Brien and Sullivan have two years left in their terms. Only Mullins is leaving in early November.
Glad he is going. It is a start.
Dennis C Rathsam says
Its really funny!!!! Everyone complains yet nothing gets done….Ignorance is bliss!!!!
We’ll make it work says
The economy is likely to get worse and the finances for the county are already in shambles. What’s troubling here is the tax rate, and consequently the budget, are not meant to be entirely political decisions. But that’s what the Board has done here and incompetently at that.
The Board members have no understanding of their responsibilities and the consequences of their uninformed actions. Why bother planning a budget at all.
Yep, looking for deep pockets to pass the buck to anyone that can be charged more. It’s the Biden way.
D Ammer says
After going to the Commission meeting this morning in support of the Library my wife and I were amazed at how clueless four of the commissioners are. Only Andy Dance seemed to be willing to work towards a solution. This does not speak well going forward in future years with people like this in charge of the county, we need commissioners who are engaged in the counties finances and looking for solutions.
The Who Knows says
Hopefully you all will vote in November for Leanne Pennington for commissioner. She will be working hard for the TAXPAYERS of Flagler County.
Nancy N. says
What a “coincidence” that these Republican commissioners suddenly decided to monkey with the budget at the last minute in a way that heavily targets for cuts the three county departments on the GOP political target list of late: libraries, election offices, and health departments.
Deborah Coffey says
Yes. This is Republican governance at its “finest.” Of course, Republicans have done this for years, complaining about liberal tax and spend. But, when Donald Trump and the Republican Congress added $8 trillion to the national debt…not a Republican cared one iota. And, how about the Small Business Administration under Trump and Republicans passing out $1.3 billion of OUR MONEY to foreigners, some of whom were crime syndicates! https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2022/09/12/sba-fraud-foreign-eidl/
Every single Republican should be voted out of office for dozens of good reasons…asap!
Here is an idea. Let’s hang a sign on the Government Services Building that says ” County Closed-Please call Sheriff with any questions or concerns regarding county services. Thank You”
Bugs said it best “What a bunch of Maroons”
My very first impresssion of Commish Don over 20 years ago is the same today. He is an arrogant, controlling, miserble person with a “small man complex”.
Hansen would have lost if Janet McDonald had not, AT THE LAST MINUTE,
jumped in to take votes away Denice Calderwood. Did any of you think about that. Hansen would have been history.