The Palm Coast City Council Thursday evening approved a budget that will increase the city’s policing contract with the Flagler County Sheriff by an unprecedented 42 percent, or $1.7 million, adding 10 deputies to the city’s ranks.
That was the easy part. The council had a more difficult path to a property tax rate all five council members could agree to, though in the end the disagreements were smoothed out enough from just two days ago as two council members–Victor Barbosa and Nick Klufas–agreed to meet in what Barbosa called a “happy medium.” It was an unlikely alliance, but an effective one that Mayor David Alfin joined. He’d been straining for weeks to bring council members together, at least long enough to ensure that the budget and the tax rate passed.
It did, 3-2, with Council members Ed Danko and Eddie Branquinho in opposition, for diametrically opposed reasons: Danko wanted to bring the tax rate to roll-back–the rate at which the city would realize no more revenue next year than it did this year. Branquinho wanted to keep the tax rate where it’s been for the last three years.
The council voted to approve a property tax rate of $4.61 per $1,000 in taxable value, the first decrease in four years from the current rate of $4.6989 per $1,000. For a homesteaded house valued at $175,000, it means a Palm Coast tax bill of $576, as opposed to $587–a saving of $11 for the year, though it still amounts to a tax increase under Florida law: as long as the city generates more revenue than it did the previous year, it’s a tax increase. The city calculates the increase at over 3 percent.
The savings for non-homesteaded properties are higher, but not by much: the Publix on Belle Terre Parkway,$480 for example, will have a Palm Coast tax bill of $24,911 with the approved rate, as opposed to $25,391 under the current rate, a saving of $480. The average Publix store had revenues of $29.7 million in 2019, according to company figures.
The council was out of time today. It had no choice but to approve a new rate and a budget. The 11th-hour delay was so perilous that Helena Alves, the finance director, had to ask for a recess during tonight’s hearing to run the agreed-upon numbers, once a consensus was apparent, so she could prepare documents with updated numbers for the council to vote on.
“I am not a political poker player, and in the post 9/11 world I will not gamble our risk, or our citizens’ public safety,” Alfin said. “Fire and police remain my top priorities because they protect our quality of life. All other expenses that define our quality of life must first support public safety. And then we can work to reduce taxes and government expense.”
The budget calls for raising spending on Palm Coast’s policing, through the sheriff’s contract, from the $4 million adopted a year ago to $5.7 million, while the fire department will see its budget increase from $10 million to $11 million, a 10.4 percent increase.
Alfin started the meeting with an admonition to his fellow-council members: “I will not recognize, and I will interrupt, conversations between unrecognized council members.” The admonition was a consequence of last Tuesday’s meeting, when Danko and Klufas, then Danko and Branquinho, brawled verbally–and rudely, on Danko’s part. “Avoid generalities and offer specific additions and changes to budget line items,” Alfin continued this evening. “We’ve reached our deadline and we must approve a budget this evening.”
Tuesday’s special workshop meeting had been intended to resolve differences between council members that other local governments resolved weeks ago. The panel agreed to grant the Sheriff’s Office all 10 deputies he was requesting. But the council members did not agree on a property tax rate. Danko pressed for rollback, Barbosa and Alfin were looking for an undefined reduction in the rate, and Klufas and Branquinho wanted to hold the line for a fourth straight year. It was a recipe for stalemate. Somebody had to give. So Klufas did, once it became apparent that the reduction in the tax rate would limit the raiding of the reserves to $530,000.
Klufas’s issues were two-fold. “I’m a little bit disappointed that we didn’t look at a phased approach,” he said of adding all 10 deputies at once. Initially, the city budget had calculated the addition of six deputies, until Alfin pushed for all 10 two weeks ago. “I was a little taken aback that we went from six to 10 without even looking at phasing them,” KLufas said. He also wondered how the Sheriff’s Office would manage to hire all 10 in the city and 10 or more additional deputies the county is paying for. But Chief Mark Strobridge, Staly’s second in command and the chief budget negotiator, reassured the council that recruiting has been ongoing: the deputies themselves would be phased in as they are trained.
“Touching the reserve fund, it’s the easy way to govern,” Branquinho said. “It’s the one that doesn’t require much intelligence on our side.” Branquinho spoke of a friend on the Elizabeth City, N.J. council telling him of the unexpected costs incurred by Hurricane Ida, and that Palm Coast should be prepared to weather such costs. But Alfin said he was ready to apply the brakes on the city’s reserves, which exceeded the maximum required by a few percentage points, relative to the size of the general fund budget.
Danko, continuing his crusade against the planned expansion of the tennis center, again tried to defund it. Alfin convinced him to defer that conversation, and further discussion pointed out that the most that the tennis center plan has drawn from the general fund–as opposed to impact fees and Town Center’s Community Redevelopment Agency budgets, which are not tied to the general fund–was $289,000, some of it already spent. Indecorous as always, Danko spilled his campaign slogan about how he’d “rather drink anti-freeze than vote for this budget” as he voted No.
He did so after injecting more political trappings into the debate, taunting Alfin about his campaign pledge not to raise taxes: “I have the commercial. I have the mailer. I realize you’re trying to compromise here. I really think you need to stick to your guns right out of the gate,” Danko lectured. Alfin thanked him for his comments.
Few people spoke, one of them, an occasional gadfly, rather ramblingly about the city’s investments (Alves patiently explained the city’s investment method and practices), and another about a golf club he owns, saying the city’s golf club competes against him, and the city’s pickleball plans are misguided. Another resident spoke against raising taxes at all, but also cautioned the city against dipping into its reserves or the hiring of all 10 deputies.