The Palm Coast City Council this evening voted 4-1 to quadruple the mayor’s and council members’ salaries starting after the election in November, a raise that will benefit three sitting council members and two to be elected later this year.
The first of two required votes on the ordinance Mayor David Alfin proposed only last month was a victory for the mayor, who was elected less than a year ago, but at a steep price. The sudden and sharp raise drew near-unanimous public opposition from a full house, some ridicule, plenty of doubt about the mayor’s and council members’ rationales, and the promise of a movement toward a charter change that would require council salaries to be set only by voters. Such movements have precedent: Polk County voters in a referendum cut their county commissioners’ salaries by half in a 2000 ballot measure, circumventing state-set salaries.
A second reading of the ordinance is expected in two weeks. If it passes, as it is expected to, salaries will increase from $9,600 a year for council members to $44,670 a year, a 365 percent increase, and from $11,400 to $46,470 for the mayor, a 307 percent increase. The new salaries will go in effect after the November election.
“It is not the percentage increase that is relevant,” Alfin said near the end of a long opening argument on behalf of his proposal. “What is relevant is the final salary number. City council service has become a full time job with part time pay. City Council is responsible for correcting lingering mistakes and providing best possible resources.”
Alfin and Council members Ed Danko, John Finelli and Nick Klufas voted for the increase. Eddie Branquinho voted against. Fanelli was the mystery vote: this was to be literally his first and most significant vote on a council to which he was just appointed–with Alfin’s strong support. He was not likely to vote against his de facto mentor. He said he was not going to reveal how he’d vote before hearing the public speak, but he tipped his hand, at least initially: “I definitely see a disproportionality between what is paid and what is expected. but I want to hear what everybody has to say,” Fanelli said. He voted accordingly. (He will not benefit from the raise, since he is stepping down in November.)
All other council members including the mayor clearly telegraphed their intentions before hearing the public, whose opposing opinions they’d already heard at a council meeting two weeks ago. There was no opposition to some kind of raise, or to a phased-in raise–only to a raise as steep as the one Alfin was proposing.
Alfin spoke in defense of his proposal at length, reading from a long brief he’d prepared. At certain points Alfin’s plaintive recitation of the difficulties of a council members’ job sounded, if less poetically and more peevishly, like Job pleading with God about his incessant difficulties–no pension, no health care benefits, no cost of living increases like those received by school board members or county commissioners, emails to be addressed, meetings and public appearances to be made, thousands of pages to read and analyze.
He said raising the salaries would not raise taxes or take away funds from “already” funded programs. That is true, in effect, for the current and possibly the coming year, but the statement cannot be said with as much certainty regarding future years.
Alfin flashed a graph showing his proposal would place council salaries between those of school board members and those of county commissioners (though it would also place those council salaries well above those of any city council or city commissioners’ salaries elsewhere in the state.) He showed the thick book representing this evening’s agenda background materials. He flashed his own monthly calendar, showing almost daily commitments. “City council members suffer from the same economic conditions, as all residents of Palm Coast,” he complained, before concluding: “Increased compensation is a logical business decision.” He acknowledged that the decision would be contentious, at last turning to his colleagues: ” Let’s talk and listen to each other.”
“That is the most disgusting insulting speech I’ve ever heard,” Vince Ligouri, first up during public comments, told the council, his forefinger wagging. Ligouri is as close to a surviving founding city father as there is anymore, having served on the panel that resulted in the city’s incorporation in 1999. “I’m a former member of the Home Rule coalition that spent five years of his life and our life making this city possible for you to sit up there. What are we all, idiots? No, we created the charter. We created your jobs. And you know for five years how much we got paid? Nothing.” He invited the council members who didn’t like the work or the pay to resign.
Alan Peterson, one of 29 former Palm Coast City Council members, had made the motion on the council in 2007 to establish the current salary. He addressed the council and said he fully supports a salary increase, especially since there’s not been one since 2008. “You’re entitled to one,” he said. The public, too, would support an increase, he said, but in the range of $12,000 a year for council members and $15,000 for the mayor. “But anything significantly more than that, you will have a very, very difficult time telling the public why you should be entitled to more money,” Peterson said. “And to make the statement, Mr. Mayor, that this won’t increase your taxes, is ludicrous. If you’re paying yourselves more money, it is coming from the taxpayer. Because if you could find that money, you could lower the taxes. So taxes will be increased by any kind of a raise. So please, temper what you’re going to tell the public.”
Michael Martin, the man gathering petitions to attempt a charter change that would require salaries to be set by charter, quoted John Kennedy’s “ask what you can do for your country” line and challenged the council to pledge that the raise would not apply to sitting council members. As it is, it would go in effect soon enough to benefit the mayor, Klufas and Danko after November.
The cumulative cost to the budget will be $175,360, “not a small number,” Alfin conceded, but not the sort of number that would affect the budget, he said. Still he said, “organizational cuts can be made to offset the difference.” He said creating a separate ballot issue could cost taxpayers more money if it were to require an extra page on the ballot–again, correct ion and of itself, but the proposed salaries would, of course, soon dwarf that cost, especially through cumulative costs.
About 15 or 16 people addressed the council all but one opposed to the raises, some of them using words like “money grab” and many of them wondering if, by suggesting that the raises would draw better quality council members, current members were calling themselves less qualified. (The words used were less complimentary.) But it was just as clear that the opposition was less than an onslaught, all told: it was insistent, but contained, and nowhere near–for example–the public opposition that shocked the council to reverse itself on the Green Lion restaurant lease only a few weeks ago, after the council had voted to end that lease. Tonight’s limited response may have caused the council members not even to alter the proposed ordinance to phase in the raises, as Klufas had suggested.
Nevertheless, there’s no telling how the vote will radiate in future elections.
Council member Eddie Branquinho took up what he called “the challenge” of the mayor’s proposal, saying what he’s said before: he opposed the raise. He referred to a low approval rate for government officials and questioned the suggestion that the higher raises would draw better-quality candidates. “I don’t exactly take that as a compliment,” Branquinho said. “Because last week, we had eight people talking to us over here. Every single one of them was better than the other.” He was referring to the eight candidates who applied to be appointed to the seat vacated by former Council member Victor Barbosa. The council appointed Fanelli, a school district administrator already well paid, and now toggling both jobs (he was making a presentation before the school board only hours ago).
“Every single one of them knew exactly what they were going to get paid,” Branquinho continued. “And trust me, there’s plenty of capacity there. plenty of people that knows what they’re doing and they were willing to do their duty for the amount of money we’re making right now.” He even said he would sign the petition Michael Martin, a resident and elected official, was gathering. Martin earlier told the council he was gathering a petition to trigger a charter change that would, in future, require salaries to be altered only by charter amendment.
But Branquinho was clearly in the minority, if only on that side of the dais. His motion, 130 minutes into the salary discussion, to raise salaries to $12,000 for council members and $15,000 for the mayor died when it drew a short-lived second.
“I feel that we are diminishing the potential candidate pool to a degree, where we don’t have candidates that are in our community, active in our community, that are willing to run for office” because of the job’s demands–and the low pay, Council member Nick Klufas said. “These five votes determine a $250 million budget. What other situation do you have people managing a $250 million budget that you’re paying $9,600 a year? Nowhere.” Moments later he said the decision will be “cataclysmic,” claiming that ” If you have an unstable set of candidates and unstable set of elected officials, everything suffers top down.” He did not explain how, having taken pride in a city that had handled its budgets and credit ratings and municipal commitments as well as it had over the years, it had managed to do so with current–and lower–salaries for the past 23 years.
Still, he said, “it’s in bad taste and in bad light” to give oneself a raise. Klufas proposed phasing in the raises rather than enacting them whole.
Council member Ed Danko talked about his campaign–knocking on doors and putting in a lot of his own money, then said the two open seats in the coming election have drawn only three candidates. (In fact, the races have drawn four candidates so far, two in each district, with a few weeks left for qualifying.) “I can tell you, this has become a full time job,” he said, speaking in support of attracting qualified candidates.
“You can see how we get beaten up sometimes,” Danko said, referring to local media. “Any of you folks like to get beaten up like that in the press for $9,000 bucks? then please step up and run. but I have to tell you, I am in support of this, and I am going to vote in favor of this. And if you don’t want to elect me again, that’s your choice. But then at least–” he was briefly interrupted by grumbling in the crowd. “At least I’ll know that will be laying a path for future candidates, because that’s the type of people we need running.”
The public spoke, council members spoke again, indicating that their positions had not changed. Alfin thanked the public response and gave a subtle nod to the possibility that salaries may be set differently in the future.
There was some loud heckling after the 4-1 vote (“you’re all crooks,” “you’d better find Jesus”), but the council moved on to its next item–ratifying City Manager Denise Bevan’s contract, at a salary of $175,000 a year. That approving vote was unanimous, and took all of four minutes, after a 135-minute segment on the council members’ salaries.
Ironically, the item of most consequences, by far, on individual residents and rate payers was neither the council members’ nor the city manager’s salaries, but an $8 million bank loan to enable substantial stormwater improvements such as swale maintenance. The item’s approval was never in doubt.