Three years ago Flagler County Government added a $450,000 department to its name: economic development. Next year, it’ll add another: tourism. County Administrator Craig Coffey on Monday unveiled a plan to absorb a four-employee bureau run by the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, on contract with county government.
That expansion won’t necessarily add costs to county government. Tourism costs are underwritten by the county’s 4 percent surtax on short-term rentals, including hotel and motel stays. That revenue pays for the tourism bureau, which has proposed an overall $1.43 million budget the county is set to approve.
But the absorption is a reflection of the bureau’s greater profile, and the increasing responsibilities being added to county government, which Coffey described when justifying the take-over to county commissioners at a meeting this afternoon.
Coffey said the work the tourism office does has changed. It’s more involved in organizing events, buying equipment—a car, a stage, a trailer. It incurs legal liability through those events, and needs legal cover, which would be provided by the county attorney. And the employees of the tourism office could benefit from the county’s better benefits, such as participation in the Florida Retirement System and an improvement in health benefits. “This is not going to add anything to our budget,” said Nate McLaughlin, a county commissioner who also chairs the Tourist Development Council that oversees the tourism office. (That’s true, but it will draw more dollars from the sales tax revenue that goes to tourism, taking that money away from other things such as grants, marketing and other things the tourism office is responsible for.) There will also be what Coffey calls “transitional costs.”
The tourism office physically adjoins the chamber offices on Airport Road. That won’t change. Coffey doesn’t think it necessary or wise to bring those offices to the county government building, though there are discussions about an office in Flagler Beach in the future. The office would continue renting the same place, and paying rent to the chamber, which owns the building.
“We would just be the support mechanism for the tourism office, just like the chamber is now, it would just requiring a higher level of support.”
The tourism office is overseen the Tourist Development Council, which meets once a month. The council—whose members are appointed by the county commission and include a mixture of government officials and private business leaders involved in tourism, such as hotel managers and travel agents–has not been officially clued in about the absorption. “This doesn’t affect the TDC board,” McLaughlins aid.
When the TDC board meets Wednesday morning, it’ll learn of the plan for the first time—at least officially. That’s not sitting well with at least two members of the TDC board.
“I don’t know that I’m against this or for it. I just think it would have been nice to go before the board first. It’s just an advisory board, and I get that, but we’re meeting on Wednesday, and I’m not sure what the big rush is today to pass this. It would have been nice to talk about it to the whole board.”
“This is the way Craig Coffey likes to do things, he likes to play his cards close to his vest,” Bill McGuire, a Palm Coast City Council member, said. “I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that they’re going to take the TDC away from the chamber and make it a county function and when that happens I can only hope that the situation continue to grow as it has, but I have serious reservations about it.”
Though McLaughlin said board members had been notified by Dunn about the change, McGuire said that was not the case, at least as far as he was concerned. He says Dunn has been successful at the tourism office because of the latitude he’s been given. “If he reports to Craig Coffey, I’m not sure he’ll get much of a free rein.”
Commissioner Barbara Revels alluded to that possibility: “I’d hate to micromanage something that’s successful to death,” she said. “I’m trying to say it as a warning.”
Dunn–whose work so far has garnered praise and been rewarded with a $12,000 raise–will report directly to Coffey, who joked about not having time to “micromanage” the tourism office. But Coffey is known as a micromanager of county departments. When asked about the structure of the new lines of authority, he went on to describe what looks like a heightened level of management of the tourism office—even as it remains under chamber auspices: “I have had more involvement in TDC in the last year and a half than I have in the preceding six and a half years,” Coffey said, “and that’s because I have to deal with contracts now, I have to deal with environmental stuff, emergency management is involved, emergency services is involved, we’re moving this, we’re moving that, purchase of vehicles, service of vehicles. I’m involved in it now, whether I want to or not, because the chamber doesn’t have those same responsibilities. Then if we get sued, guess who’s getting sued. You guys are getting sued too.”
Two years ago there were similar discussions of absorption. Then-director Georgia Turner batted away the proposal, saying it was not necessary, and suggesting that if there were to be a change in direction, it would be more autonomy for the tourism office—away from the chamber’s umbrella—not less.
At the time, Rebecca DeLorenzo, the chamber president, was also opposed to a change. Not this time. She said the chamber doesn’t make any profit from contracting with the county. It earns no management fee, for example. The chamber is “pretty much a pass through,” and with the tourism office’s role changing over the years, it’s time for the change. “What Matt has been able to do in his time is really grow it into an organization that’s kind of growing out from under us,” DeLorenzo said in a brief interview before this afternoon’s meeting, “as far as going out and actively recruiting groups and tours and playing a larger role with some of these groups coming in.” She added: “We recognize some of the limitations we could potentially have as far as funding these larger things, so we’re in support of it, we recognize the fact that it’s growing much larger, much to our success.”
DeLorenzo echoed those words when she addressed the commission today.
Only Commissioner Charlie Ericksen raised questions about the proposed take-over, asking the administrator whether the drawbacks have been studied, too. Coffey spoke of none. The transition would take place over the next few months, and be completed by next fall, when the current three-year contract with the chamber ends. But commissioners agreed not to take any formal action on the plan until the TDC board has a chance to discuss it.
Clearly, however, and as has often been the case with other key matters, some commissioners had been clued in, others had not. “It’s not a surprise to none of us, this is the first time we’re actually dealing with it at a public meeting,” Commissioner George Hanns said.