You don’t bring Palm Coast and county governments together over millions in disputed dollars and not expect a contest in one-upmanship.
“So just for clarification, the $2.1 million is the city’s impact fee money the county has,” City Manager Jim Landon said to County Administrator Craig Coffey, as the two faced each other across tables in a joint meeting this morning.
“It’s the county’s money,” Coffey corrected. Respectful people can respectfully disagree, he added.
True, Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said, but: “at some point, an ALJ will decide.” An ALJ is an administrative law judge. Netts was putting the county on notice that the city would go as far as litigating this latest dispute, though that may have been more posturing than necessity. The council and commission members around the table had enough desire for compromise.
But much of that compromise depends on the state Department of Transportation coming to both sides’ rescue by finding $2.1 million for the county. That may be a tall order for a state agency that wants local government to contribute some money to local projects. That $2.1 million was to be Flagler County’s contribution for a new interchange at I-95 and Matanzas Woods Parkway. But Palm Coast and the county have had several successes in convincing state agencies to help, particularly when the local governments work together.
One commissioner was adamant that Palm Coast and the county end the mutual sniping over the issue in order to foster a more unified approach. “A lot of this rhetoric needs to stop and we just need to move forward, because this is completely unnecessary,” County Commissioner Milissa Holland said.
By the end of a two-hour meeting, the two governments agreed to metaphorically lock their respective managers and administrators in a room, come up with a joint plan to submit to the state Department of Transportation, and move from there.
Here’s the issue: the county and the city collected so-called transportation impact fees over the years–one-time fees paid by developers on the cost of construction, which local governments use to improve roads. At issue is $2.8 million the county says belongs to it, and that the county has pledged for construction of an interchange with I-95 at Matanzas Woods Parkway.
The city argues that the money isn’t the county’s to use, but the city’s. And the city is concerned about building an interchange at Matanzas Woods when the main arteries leading to the interchange have not been improved. In an emergency such as the 1998 wildfires, that could be a recipe for disaster.
The city, Landon said, hasn’t objected to the interchange until recently. But that’s because the city wanted state and federal dollars to be used for that interchange. As soon as the county started talking about using local impact fees for the interchange, “then you got our attention,” Landon said, because that was money the city thought it was entitled to for other needs. Local impact fee dollars should still be used to improve the street network to get to that interchange, concurrently with construction of the interchange–as long as that interchange is built exclusively with state and federal dollars. That’s what Landon was proposing, and his council supporting.
The Palm Coast proposal got its strongest support from County Commissioner Milissa Holland, who said the state Department of Transportation should be presented with that proposal, and shown that the county and the city are working together. The state would then very possibly produce the money. “It’s certainly worth going and having that conversation with them,” Holland said. “I still think that is a viable option for us to pursue.”
Other county commissioners were more skeptical.
“I’d like to agree to what you said but I cannot,” Commissioner Alan Peterson told Landon. “I think the county has pledged to the state the $2.1. That’s a done deal.” The county pledged to spend $2.1 million of its own on the I-95 interchange in order to secure the remaining dollars from the state and the federal government. Going back on that pledge would demolish the county’s credibility in the state’s eyes, Coffey says. “I think a pledge is a pledge,” Peterson said.
“And a contract is a contract,” Netts countered, referring to the city’s interpretation of the paper trail that would have impact fees spent on city projects.
“It sounds wonderful that we are talking like we can do this together,” Barbara Revels, the commission chairman, said. “But I for one just want to go on the record to say that should we find that we cannot get it replaced and we have to keep our $2.1 million pledge, I’m going to stick with our $2.1 pledge.”
The joint meeting was held this morning at the Palm Coast Community Center on Palm Coast Parkway. The two governments sat around a U-shaped set of tables. Each side made its case. Jose Papa, a senior planner, presented the city’s, going over the history of the impact fees and focusing a city proposal on widening or extending roads in Northeast Palm Coast, especially Palm Harbor Parkway and Old Kings Road. The improvements would ease traffic flows and create better evacuation routes. The improvements are costly, totaling upwards of $15 million. The city is proposing to use $2.4 million in county impact fees to defray some of that cost.
Coffey said the county has its major needs, too, and immediately referred to the disputed impact fees as the county’s, not the city’s, but he also noted: “We’ve spent the lion share of all the impact fees the county has collected over the years in Palm Coast.”
But as the meeting wore on, it increasingly appeared that Coffey was more isolated–and on more than one occasion, rebuked by his own commissioners–as he insisted on sticking by the county’s pledge.
Revels summed up the compromise Landon had presented: the county and the city, through its administration, would take a joint case to the state Department of Transportation and seek out the $2.1 million in new dollars, in order to then free tat pledged amount and, presumably, turn it over to Palm Coast for improvements in the northeast portion of its city.