The Flagler County Commission held its first budget workshop almost four months ago. It’s held nine such workshops since, many of them lasting four, five, six hours. They’ve discussed the budget in other ways during their eight or nine regular meetings, too. Over those months commissioners deconstructed every part of the budget, applying the same magnifying glasses to constitutional officers’ budgets. The sheriff, the clerk of court and the supervisor of elections each got scrutinized and, in the latter two cases, pared down. There are few questions most people might think of that the commissioners haven’t asked or wrestled over.
Thursday evening, the commission held the first of two public hearings on its way to approving next year’s budget, giving the public a chance to judge commissioners’ work. That fiscal year begins Oct. 1. At the end of the meeting, the commission took its first vote, approving the budget 3-1. Commissioner Bob Abbot was absent. Commissioner Milissa Holland voted in dissent—there are just certain positions I just cannot adjust my thought process on and cannot support,” she said, citing increases in portions of the budget she disagreed with.
The tax rate the commission approved—a “reasonable compromise,” in Commissioner Alan Peterson said, between needed reductions and necessary services that still need to be provided—was $5.5905 per $1,000 in assessed value. That’s up from $4.8894 per $1,000, a 14 percent increase. Commissioners approved a $138 million budget that includes 287 county employees, down 64 positions in three years.
This year’s budget hearings (at the county, the school board, in Palm Coast) have been unusually well attended. Attendance has been driven mostly by the activist effects of the “tea parties” on local governments, the mostly retired, mostly white, mostly wealthier set focusing on smaller government and lower taxes. The Flagler County Tea Party Group, as it officially refers to itself, has become a considerable force in local politics, filling their share of seats in government chambers—as they did Thursday evening—and ballot boxes at election time.
Not every speaker who addressed the commission Thursday evening wore a blue or red shirt with the tea party’s reigning acronym spelled out (“taxed enough already”), although most speakers were critical of the county in one way or another. (One who wasn’t asked a neutral question: how Flagler could become a charter county, another referred to “the joy” of the commission’s and Coffey’s transparency and patience. “That’s one of the first compliments I’ve heard in 18 years,” Commission Chairman George Hanns said.) Commissioners and the administrator, Craig Coffey, maintaining stoically courteous demeanors, engaged every speaker, at times in long back-and-forths without regard for the three-minute time limit.
Just as consistently, the questions and criticism commissioners and the administrator faced favored the general over the specific. “When times are bad, they should be bad for everyone,” one blue-shirted speaker said, unhappy with the extent of cuts in the county and particularly unhappy about the extent of technology surrounding her. She was suggesting that the county spent too much money on that technology (which is shared by the school board, Bunnell, and numerous advisory boards). Identifying herself as a civil servant, she said, “I have never ever seen a county service provide a service cheaper than a service you can contract out.” (The statement has no foundation in fact; the federal General Accounting Office has, on several occasions, analyzed the limits and pitfalls of privatization.)
Others, again without citing specifics or offering particular suggestions they had in mind, questioned why the county wasn’t paring down its employees and services further. Tom Lawrence, one of the leaders of the local tea party, pointed out the significant budget reductions in two previous years, but only a 1.7 percent reduction for the coming year. “I’m, wondering if there isn’t more room there.” Coffey’s answer: “At some point you may reach a law of diminishing returns. If you become so efficient, you may actually become dysfunctional.”
Answering other questions about the county’s finances, Coffey noted that “the cost of running a jail did not go down last year. The cost of running law enforcement did not go down last year.” He also outlined a series of service cuts that most people haven’t heard of before: In the building department, which is no longer issuing permits as it once did, in meals for the elderly, in the number of adult day care patients the county was taking in, and at the Carver Gym, where the budget was cut 25 percent. “I guarantee you, we cut a variety of services,” Coffey said.
One of the complaints that got the most responses from commissioners was criticism over the construction costs of the county administration building and the new courthouse four years ago. “This board is a totally different board that was involved in the construction of this building and the courthouse,” Peterson said (the exception being Hanns). Peterson said he chose to run for the county commission precisely to look over the county’s books. “I think things have changed dramatically in the four or five years since this building and the courthouse was constructed,” he said, conceding that parts of the buildings may be nice to look at, but aren’t functional. “What was done was poorly done. It’s a whole new ballgame now.”
The two-hour meeting adjourned around 8 p.m. The next and final budget hearing is scheduled for Sept. 23 at 6 p.m.