In a day of stunning developments, Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin capped a City Council meeting this evening by asking for a 365 percent pay raise for council members–from $9,600 to $44,670 a year–and for a similarly hefty raise for the mayor, to $46,470. The council went along, voting 3-1 to move forward with the proposal.
It’s not a done deal: the motion today, which Alfin made after passing the gavel to Eddie Branquinho, the vice mayor, only directs the city attorney to draft the ordinance that would enact the pay raise. The ordinance would have to be heard by council, with public input. Branquinho voted against.
“I realize that it is a dubious proposition for elected officials to talk about pay raises, but I hope you’ll give me a moment to convey my rationale for this conversation,” Alfin said, reading from a prepared statement at the very end of the meeting, and to a nearly empty chamber. “People often think that serving on a city council is a hobby or a part time job. This is most certainly a misjudgment.” (He was wrong about the “hobby” part, but right about the part-time aspect: that’s how the original council had envisaged it.) Alfin outlined a few of the council’s central responsibilities, then made his pitch.
He said Flagler County commissioners are paid $54,746., and Flagler County school board members are paid $34,594 (in fact, county commissioners are paid $59,637 and school board members $35,949). ” How much are our city council members worth to us? Where do we want to be on this issue?” he asked. “We need to attract candidates who can share a smart and managed growth mentality and we should appeal to people who can afford to give us their time and talent.”
Branquinho asked: “Question is, would we do a better job here if we get paid more? Would we get a bigger pool of people applying for a job? I don’t know.” The answer is more apparent: the governments Alfin cited–the county commission and the school board–have the substantially higher salaries, but the last few years have illustrated how pay does not translate into quality as each of those boards have degenerated into dysfunction, incompetence or public embarrassment.
Council member Ed Danko said he did not become a councilman for the money (no council member ever has), but said he was supportive of the proposal as long as it doesn’t raise taxes–then added another rationale for the raise: it would help with election campaigns: “The bottom line is you reach into your own pocket, and you spend a lot of your own money to get elected to this office,” Danko said, “not to mention just the time that it takes, and I’ve spoken to potential candidates in the last couple of years, and once they discover what it costs what it costs to send out a mailing, what it costs to do Facebook boost for advertising, what it costs to just, you know, flyers and signs–you guys know the whole nine yards. A lot of people say well, it’s not worth it, and they’re good people, but they’re just not going to throw their money at it.” (Danko was perhaps clouding the issue with his own experience: candidates generally fund-raise for their elections, unless they prove incapable at it.) He added, of higher salaries: “I see that as being another reason to attract better people.”
Council member Nick Klufas said the public would understand the amount of work necessary to do the job, and pointed to the council’s more frequent meetings than the county commission has. “It’s very clear that we definitely put in the hard work, but I think not for the money but more for attracting the correct candidate to fill our seats as we move through this process is really important,” Klufas said.
In his brief, six-month tenure as Palm Coast mayor, Alfin has displayed uncanny political skills, sensing the public pulse as skillfully as he’s steered the council toward consensus. Depending on the public’s reaction, today’s proposal may either be his most daring move yet or his most colossal miscalculation in a year of economic instability and still-recurring political instability on the council: hours earlier, Victor Barbosa had announced his resignation from the council, upending the council’s make-up and requiring an appointment to the seat within 30 days.
Alfin also all but handed a campaign issue to candidates, who will now line up for and against the raise–or potentially for a promise to rollback the raise, should they get elected: for all of Alfin’s prestidigitation in making a rising Phoenix of what had become a shabby council only months ago, the council still hasn’t necessarily built back the capital it needs for its reputation to weather what could be another shock to its institutional image–a shock that would jeopardize not just council members, but reverberate across City Hall.
The issue also risks displacing the council’s focus from far more central matters of concern, from budgeting to taxation to navigating whatever economic fallout may result from the war in Ukraine, while also raising the inevitable question: what about staffers’ pay? Only on Monday, the Bunnell City Commission gave its administrator the go ahead to implement an across-the-board $1-an-hour pay raise for all employees as a first step to raising salaries more substantially, as a means of keeping the city’s hiring competitive and to combat turnover that now exceeds 30 percent in the city.
Palm Coast and other local governments are sure to follow close behind. But when politicians vote themselves enormous raises, they can make it more difficult, politically, to secure raises for their staff at the same time or soon after, especially in a city of retirees who love to peddle two words before elected officials no matter what the issue might be: “Fixed income.”
It will become readily apparent to council members whether their gambit hews along any kind of mainstream among constituents, as seems doubtful, or whether it will be their next Green-Lion-180: last month, the council within a week was forced to turn tail on its decision to sever its lease with the Green Lion restaurant at Palm Harbor as the decision provoked a popular rebellion on behalf of the business and against the city. Alfin alone had read the situation correctly then and held back support for the lease-severing.
This evening, Alfin and council members, with Branquinho’s exception, spoke with self-assurance that their constituents would follow along and be supportive of the raise.
The mayor is paid $11,400 a year. Like the four council members, the mayor also gets a $1,200 car allowance and a $910 communication allowance each year, so in sum the mayor’s total pay is $13,510. The raise would nearly quintuple council members’ salaries. It would also result in a substantial new burden on the budget–from $50,000 a year now, to cover base salaries alone, to $225,000 a year.
The last time the council considered raising its pay was in 2016, when then-Council member Steven Nobile proposed raising salaries close to what Alfin asked for tonight: to around $41,000 a year (Nobile’s rationale was to make council salaries be the equivalent of 80 percent of county commissioners’ salary at the time, which was $50,000. That salary is set by state law.) Fellow-Council member Heidi Shipley proposed a raise to $22,856, or half the median household income at the time. The council discussed the issue at a morning workshop, not at the tail end of a night meeting, and directed the city manager to draw up some numbers. But the public reaction was overwhelmingly negative, and the matter fizzled. (See: “Steven Nobile, Professed Conservative, Wants a 324% Pay Increase for Palm Coast Council.“)