It’s messaging in a bit of a shamble, the Flagler County Commission on Monday beat a retreat on two fronts: it will not seek cities’ support in an attempt to raise the sales tax an additional half penny. And it will not raise the special tax Daytona North residents pay for road maintenance. Both issues had been controversial.
The retreats underscore a combination of lacking, poor and conflicting messaging from the County Commission on one side and a rueful public reaction to both proposals on the other.
“We just have to do a better job of pulling in stakeholders on those big items,” Commissioner Andy Dance said.
On raising the sales tax, one of the county commissioners–Donald O’Brien, who’s running for a state House seat–perplexed his colleagues when he said there hadn’t even been a consensus to seek other cities’ opinions about the proposal. “That really never rose past the level of staff making lots of recommendations about possible future revenue sources,” he said. “It was never agendad. There was never, it never went past just just the generic discussion in my mind.”
“Apparently there was a consensus given by this board to have Ms. Petito send those letters out,” Dance, who chaired the meeting on Monday, said.
“Not from me,” O’Brien said.
But the July 17 commission workshop where County Administrator Heidi Petito was given that direction had gone past a generic discussion, even to the point of involving O’Brien himself. Petito had discussed the sales tax increase as one option to raise revenue for needed road improvements.
“I would like to see, if we’re going to go forward with this kind of an idea,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan, who was supportive of the idea, said, “that we have some support from Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and Bunnell, since they’re all getting advantages of the tax.”
“You make a good point politically,” O’Brien told him. “They don’t have any risk. We have the risk.”
When Commission Chairman Greg Hansen asked if there was consensus for sending out the letters moments later, he got no disagreement. Sullivan said explicitly he was on board, as did Hansen. Dance happened to have walked away for a brief time (he would have only supported an increase in the sales tax had the proposal been presented to voters as a referendum). But Leann Pennington and O’Brien did not object–neither verbally nor non-verbally. O’Brien fiddled with his mic could have spoken up. He did not. His claim, at Monday’s meeting, that there was no consensus seemed disingenuous, and more along the lines of an after-the-fact slink-back in light of the way the proposal had been received.
“It was absolutely a consensus to send the letter out,” Sullivan said today. He called O’Brien’s re-interpretation of that meeting “strange,” and referred to O’Brien’s part in the discussion that led to the decision. Petito sent out the letter the next day. The fact that it contained inaccuracies was a different matter: she clearly stated that she was doing so, following on the commission’s consensus, which commissioners, including O’Brien, never disputed at subsequent meetings–until Monday.
By then the fallout may have been too much to bear, so a little rewriting of history looked in order. (Hansen was ill on Monday and did not attend the meeting.) For all that, Sullivan today said the sales ta proposal may be dead this year–it won;t anymore be part of the budget discussions–and it’s not likely to come up in an election year in 2024, but that the idea remains viable. He said the county needs the revenue, and the structure of the property tax is such, with homestead exemptions skewing revenue downward, that the county will need to seek out alternative revenue sources.
“No matter how we market a half-cent sales tax, there’s always going ton be a big group of people who say, no way,” Sullivan said, “and my point is, we’re the elected officials, we’re in a republic, not a full democracy, and it’s on our shoulders to make tough decisions. If the people don’t like the decisions, they can vote us out of office.” Sullivan has opted not to run for re-election in 2024.
As for the road tax in Daytona North, the commission had voted 4-1 on July 10 to move in that direction. Petito had proposed doubling the tax. It would have equated to going from $80 to $160 a year for typical property owners there, based on the front footage of a property onto a road. The tax is levied even though those property owners already pay normal county taxes. They don’t receive normal county services, though they do receive some services over and above the special tax raises. In essence, Mondex residents subsidize other county residents–and are assessed an extra tax to boot. (See: “Flagler County Approves 1st Step to Doubling Levy in the Mondex, Angering Residents“).
Pennington opposed the move. So did a steady stream of Daytona North (or Mondex) residents, before and since. “We really need to rethink this plan,” a Cottownwood Street resident told commissioners on Monday, reminding them how the tax came to be: the original developer of the Mondex had neglected to follow county rules and a judge ruled that the county was not obligated to provide services there as a consequences. The developer left residents holding the bags. “Don’t start penalizing us because Mondex didn’t do the job and they didn’t get the inspections. All the things that weren’t supposed to be done weren’t. That’s not our fault. We’re paying all that tax, double and again, over and what we should be paying and not really receiving what we need.”
A little over an hour later, Petito addressed the commission: “I’m asking to forego the request to increase that front-foot assessment in Daytona North and just keep it flat, continue it at the rate that it currently is,” Petito said: 58 cents per foot. The doubling of the rate would have brought in an additional $250,000. But Petito said there would have to be a decrease in maintenance in the Mondex.
Commissioners agreed. Dance wants to rethink the assessment itself next year, while giving residents more transparency on where their money is going.