Facing another full house of law enforcement power and support, the Flagler County Commission this evening voted 3-2 to cut the tax rate by a tenth of a point and fully fund the sheriff’s budget request, closing what had been a $700,000 difference between the county’s proposal and the sheriff’s request. The result will be a $1.9 million hit on the budget the administration had submitted to the commission ahead of today’s public hearing, the first of two to adopt next year’s budget and tax rate.
But that’s a $1.9 million hit on, not a cut in, a budget that was set to increase substantially, and that will still do so, albeit not as much: Before today’s revision, the county budget for government operations and was to increase from $60 million to $69 million. Including all constitutional officers, the budget was to increase from $98.3 million to $113 million. The sheriff’s portion was to increase from a base budget of $28.5 million to $33 million, not including the $700,000.
The motion Commissioner Donald O’Brien proposed and that Commissioners Greg Hansen and Joe Mullins voted for calls on the tax rate reduction, which will trim $1.2 million in revenue, it requires to leave all cost of living raises intact and the sheriff’s budget as submitted intact, including granting him the $700,000 he’d asked for, for raises, that the county said it could not provide. The administration is to find that money “elsewhere,” O’Brien said. He did not specify.
The administration will have to submit a new budget reflecting today’s changes by the time the commission meets for its second and final public hearing on the budget on Sept. 19 at 5 p.m.
The switch was a surprise particularly in one regard: Mullins’s vote. Only last month Mullins voted against going that route. (See: “County Resists Sheriff’s Request for Additional $700,000 in Surprise 3-2 Vote, Heralding Shift.”) And minutes before tonight’s vote, Mullins had been saying that a cut in the tax rate was not possible: “To talk about cutting the millage rate, I don’t know how you do that, because it’s not going to solve the sheriff’s problem, it’s just going to create 10 more problems and fires everywhere,” Mullins said. Yet he did exactly that.
Commissioners Andy Dance and Dave Sullivan voted against the measure. Dance would have been willing to reduce the tax rate, but not provide the sheriff the additional $700,000. He called the combination “a bit drastic.”
This one-tenth of a mil cut will cost us in dollars $1.7 million, less money to run the county,” Sullivan said. “I am not willing to do that because I think it’ll cut services in the county and it’ll hinder” operations. (Moments later the county’s finance director said the cut in the tax rate would equate to $1.2 million in reduced revenue, not $1 million.)
The county may have been feeling the effects of Tuesday evening’s Palm Coast City Council meeting, when some 30 people addressed the council, some bitterly, almost all critically, over the very same proposal the county was putting forth: keeping the tax rate flat, though the county’s tax rate is a little less than double that of the city. The city holds its first budget hearing Thursday evening. (See: “After Din of Opposition and Another Screaming Match, Palm Coast Council Will Consider Cuts in Tax Hike.”)
The sheriff was first to speak, going right into the range of salaries starting above $50,000 in neighboring counties, compared to starting pay of $46,541 in Flagler. He again invoked the starting pay of $51,500 for firefighter-paramedics in Flagler, as an equivalent he was seeking. He stressed that he was not offering the comparison as a criticism. “My point is this: you can use reserves if you want to bridge the gap we have until the fiscal year 23-24,” the sheriff said, asking the commission to direct the county administrator to do just that, with $700,000, to close the existing gap between the county’s budget proposal and the sheriff’s budget request.
“If we don’t give them what they need, we will lose lives,” the Flagler County Drug Court Foundation President Michael Feldbauer told commissioners. Some used unusual rationales to speak of their support of the sheriff: bad drivers. Others exaggerated: “We’re getting more and more people in this county,” one supporter said, “and they need more and more deputies. Otherwise, it’s going to be a swamp area.” Actually, the sheriff is not asking for more deputies this year (not from the county: the Palm Coast contract is adding five more) so much as he is asking for money to raise pay, so the agency can more effectively retain the deputies it’s training rather than turn into a training ground for other agencies.
One resident said he’d never spoken to a local government before, and only turned out not because of the sheriff’s issue, but because of his tax bill. But he said “some people will be affected by an increase in the millage,” meaning the tax rate, “increases of substantial amounts,” he said, though that’s not the case: the tax rate is not increasing. The county was proposing to keep its tax rate flat, resulting in more revenue for the county because of a surge in property and taxable values. Because the county is taking in more revenue next year than it did this year, it rates as a tax increase under Florida law. But most homesteaded property owners will not see a substantial increase.
Remarkably, Joe Mullins, the chairman of the County Commission for a few more weeks, misrepresented the matter even as he was attempting to clarify it: “Just to be clear, th city is dealing with a millage rate or looking at an increase, the county is not, we have capped it,” he said. “Some of the media that you’re hearing doesn’t explain that, a lot of the people get confused.” He wasn’t kidding. He then tried explaining the assessment system and said something likely to exasperate Jay Gardner, the property appraiser: that taxpayers should direct their questions to him. Gardner has spoken in the past of being unfairly targeted as the reason people’s tax bills are going up, when local governments are in a deflecting mood.
A property owner who’d owned a lot for 21 years locally unwittingly illustrated the matter of surging property values. He just built a house, and got a tax bill for $9,000. “I can’t afford that, so I’ll be selling my house,” he said. He was followed by another property owner who went through almost the exact steps, building a house very recently on a lot he’d owned and seeing his tax assessments surge. He wasn’t angry, not even critical of the commission or its proposed tax rate, but suggested that the way assessments are carried out should be re-examined.
He was alluding to common disparities that have neighbors on the same street paying hugely disparate tax bills, depending on how long they’ve been in their house–and to the fallout from the valuation boom: the median price of a new house in Flagler was $400,000 in May, double what it was only a few years earlier. For anyone buying new, without the accumulated protection of homestead exemptions, the tax bill will reflect the higher prices, if at the lower valuations of the property appraiser. Yet another speaker, also not critical of the county, said he wanted to know how the property appraiser arrives at tax assessments.
But it was nothing like the outpouring of criticism witnessed at the Palm Coast City Council Tuesday evening.
When Dance made the case for holding the line on the proposal the administration was putting forth, he spoke with some confidence that he would have the same vote line-up he had last month, when Mullins was with his majority. He also spoke of the sheriff’s request for the additional $700,000–and of the county’s relationship with the sheriff–in stark terms the sheriff had not heard before from a commissioner, though County Administrator Heidi Petito had defended her budget as staunchly.
Dance said the county is in catch-up mode on salaries for firefighters, which was done this year, paying for two new fire trucks, refilling reserves. “I would say that this budget that we’re proposing is a public safety budget,” Dance said. “A majority of our budget is allocated to public safety, not just sheriff’s, but through our Emergency Operations Center and our firefighters and we have to take all of those into consideration to do what’s best for the community.” He said the sheriff was getting a “record amount of funding,” even without the $700,000. It was up to him to prioritize the needs and pay his ranks first. “That’s [what] the frustration is, with a record number of funding, we shouldn’t have this conversation. And I think our system between the sheriff’s operations, the sheriff and the county, is broken. And as a county commissioner, I want to fix the process moving forward.”
He said the two sides should end up in a situation like the last few weeks at the end of budget season. “We need to know what the needs are, your goals, objectives for the Sheriff’s operations and trying and meet that as close as we can and not get into this end of the year situation where we’re trying to stack board meetings to influence decisions,” Dance said. “I would much rather get all that stuff done earlier in the process. If there’s a problem with the allocation system we got, we need to start looking at that. But pulling money out of reserves is not the answer. The answer is in a better process moving forward.” He had no objection to some relief for taxpayers, he said, considering an 18 percent increase in taxable values, which resulted in the revenue windfall.
But it proved to be not enough to secure Dance–who at one point told O’Brien he didn’t think the votes were there for O’Brien’s motion–the three votes he thought he had.