The Flagler County Commission this afternoon agreed to lower the county’s property tax by a symbolic decimal point next year. While not a tax cut, the reduction would save the average homesteaded property about $16 for the year from whatever tax increase is ahead, but cut $1 million from county revenue. That revenue will still increase $5.9 million thanks to surging property values–and the fact that the county is not cutting the tax rate to the point of erasing that new revenue.
The sheriff will get $2.2 million in additional funding, though based on where the numbers stand today, Sheriff Rick Staly will get “$500,000 less than what he wanted” for his agency, County Commissioner Dave Sullivan said. (The figure is closer to $668,000.) “He still gets a major increase, more than what I would have gone with,” he added. That $2.2 million includes a one-time extraction from county reserves of $400,000 so the sheriff can buy a new mobile-command center. Sullivan described that addition as a “compromise,” though the county administration had been insistent on building, rather than spending down, uncommitted dollars.
“He gets five deputies less than what he wanted,” Sullivan said. Staly had requested 15 new deputies from the county. Current funding means he would be able to pay for 10 new deputies. He also requested 10 additional deputies from Palm Coast, which pays for enhanced policing. The city’s current budget calls for funding six of the 10 requested deputies. (“At this point there has been no direction by Council to change any budget numbers, to my knowledge,” a city spokesperson said of Palm Coast’s figures in an email today.)
The difference in funding from what Sheriff Rick Staly had originally requested means that he would be able to pay for an additional 10 deputies, as opposed to the 15 he was requesting from the county. Chief Mark Strobridge, who’s conducted the negotiations with the county, wasn’t ready to define the new number of deputies yet. “We have to review everything that we learned today,” he said.
Seemingly persuaded by its county manager and finance director, who, as they had last week but in sharper terms today, again drew a stark picture of backlogged infrastructure and other improvements in the county, commissioners stepped back from last week’s direction to find $2 million to cut in county services and still find money for the sheriff’s full request.
Commissioners reached their decisions today after a brief workshop that was essentially a continuation of last week’s, when they couldn’t reach consensus on an actual tax rate absent certain figures. It briefly looked that way again today (“Doesn’t sound like we’ve moved any further from a week ago,” Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien said toward the end of the 40-minute workshop. But the picture seemed to clear enough in the discussion that followed to make a decimal-point reduction the point of agreement, if through an unusual split. Commissioners Greg Hansen and Joe Mullins were concerned about reducing the rate if it meant compromising the progress the county has been making on catching up to its infrastructure needs. But Sullivan and Commissioner Andy Dance were insistent on a reduction, even if it doesn’t, in fact, amount to a tax cut under Florida law, and O’Brien favored it, though he said he wasn’t opposed to keeping the rate flat, either.
Keeping the property tax rate at 8.5847 (or $8.5847 per $1,000 in taxable value: a $200,000 house would pay $1,287 in county taxes) would add $6.9 million to county coffers, enabling the sheriff to get $2 million in additional revenue. A reduction of 0.1 in the property tax rate would translate to a $1,272 county tax bill for homesteaded property owners, or a $16 saving. But it would reduce county revenue by $1 million, to $5.9 million, and reduce the sheriff’s share to $1.77 million. County government would have to forego about $600,000 in spending, especially on capital equipment and infrastructure.
John Brower, the county’s finance director, described a “three-legged stool” of recovery from economic lean years as he explained how the county was rebuilding its reserves and infrastructure and planning on reducing its property tax rate next year. “We have about $1 million dollars in the general fund right now,” he said of “rolling stock,” or unappropriated reserves that carry forward.
“What we really needed was $1.3 [million]. Next year we need $1.7,” Brower said. The county has a $41 million in capital improvements over the next five years, $31 million for law enforcement (the new sheriff’s operations building is included in that figure), $31 million for fire department needs, over $12 million for the county library, and $8 million in “administrative future needs costs,” for a total of $107 million.
“I think that the financial strategic plan allows us to grow our way out of the financial crisis that we were once in,” County Administrator Heidi Petito told the commissioners. “If we prematurely reduced millage it will compromise our ability to fulfill that plan, and will lead to a longer recovery. We’re asking that we maintain a pro rata share approach making progress on the many years of deferred maintenance and deferred infrastructure support. This would allow us to build capacity to fund additional personnel that we know that we have coming forward, whether it be the firefighters through the ‘Safer’ grant or the additions to the library or some of those additional supports staff needs that we talked about earlier.” Petito tried to convince the commission to defer the tax rate reduction to next year. “If we prematurely, do it, the timing will be off and our ability to fulfill that plan will take a little bit of a longer recovery.”
But Sullivan said the county has to give itself room to increase its property tax rate in difficult years–and therefore should reduce its rate, even a little in flush years. He said the 9 increase in property values this year is not likely to be repeated next year. “If we as a county, even under those circumstances, can’t do anything except keep the millage rate the same, then I think that’s a sign that we, as we look into the future, there’s almost no chance of doing it for the near term, next three or four years,” Sullivan said. O’Brien said Sullivan described the situation as he would have done, though he was not opposed to keeping the rate flat.
“We should keep the millage rate the same and start fixing this stuff,” Hansen said. “None of us has a crystal ball. We don’t know what’s going to happen next year, or the year after that.” He said the county needs to “keep trying to get ahead of some of this stuff.”
“If it’s that little bit of a reduction, I think we need to look at what we’re going to call staff and call services,” Mullins said. “One thing we’ve got to realize, as people move into the state, infrastructure is going to play a major role in the future, and if we don’t have this infrastructure, caught up, there’s nobody in here that’s going to be able to deter growth, none of us can stop growth.”
It only looked like a deadlock. “If you’re looking at consensus, I’m not voting for flat millage,” Dance said, clarifying his intentions. “So you can kind of formulate where three people are heading.” The three were Sullivan, O’Brien and Dance, though Mullins soon joined the consensus. “There’s nothing magical in a 10th” of a mil, he continued, “but the 10th is what we came up with, it’s about $1 million. And I agree, I mean if you’re not going to cut it this year, then it’s never going to happen.”
“I’m just concerned about the future,” Hansen said. “I’d hate to reduce a mil this year and add two points next year.”