County government’s top staff burned the midnight oil Thursday and Friday–130 hours combined just those two days–and again this weekend after the County Commission last Wednesday forced its own administration to cut between $1.9 to $2.4 million from the budget by tomorrow (Monday).
A silver lining: the county is getting an unexpected infusion of $600,000 in new revenue because of a glitch in property appraiser calculations. The County Commission was not aware of that new revenue when it last met. Nevertheless, the cuts remain a challenge because the commission ordered them at the 11th hour, and because it imposed a series of conditions that complicate how the cuts may be made, and who must be spared.
The gap will be closed, County Administrator Heidi Petito said on Sunday afternoon, as she was driving home from work. Petito is submitting options to a special meeting of the commission Monday at 9 a.m. “We’re potentially offering up a list of cuts on the board side that will cover roughly $1.3, $1.4 million on our side,” Petito said. “It will affect certain programs and service levels, but working with some guidance from a few commissioners and staff, we’ve identified some things that will have the least amount” of impacts.
But obligations will once again be deferred, certain positions will be eliminated (without layoffs: the positions are currently vacant), and the budgets of departments like the public library, public works, parks and recreation and health and social services will be affected, according to plans being finalized Sunday and into Monday. It is also unclear whether the Supervisor of Elections and the Clerk of Court will–or can–assume a share of the cuts, as they normally would. If not, whatever cannot be cut out of their budget must be cut out of the county’s budget.
The county faces a drop-dead deadline of Tuesday to have its final budget’s legally required advertisement in to the newspaper.
Then administration was placed in that position because of the disorganized–and once again bumbling–way the County Commission handled the budget this year, turning its single most critical responsibility into Wednesday’s evening at the improv.
Budgets always have room to change, and indeed do change over the course of what amounts to a four-month budget preparation season, especially as revenue projections change. They did so this year, for the better. Petito presented her first budget overview on May 18. There’s been several budget workshops since, if not as many as in Palm Coast: County Commissioners are more averse to workshops than their colleagues in the city, which at times has direct consequences on the way they reach decisions without fully deliberating over issues. (See: “In ‘Baffling’ Votes, County Commission Rejects More Probing Meeting Schedule.”)
But it was only last Wednesday, at the first public budget hearing, when government budgets are almost always in their final form and the hearings are a formality, that Commissioner Donald O’Brien made a motion to cut the property tax rate by a decimal point, removing $1.2 million from the budget. That alone is not greatly consequential or without precedent. (See: “In Latest Switch, County Will Cut Tax Rate, Fund Sheriff’s Full Request, and Take a $1.9 Million Hit on Budget.”)
O’Brien’s conditions, however, were the curveball. Normally with a budget cut of the sort, the cut is spread across all departments and all constitutional officers, limiting the pain considerably. O’Brien said no to that. His motion ordered the administration not only to exempt the Sheriff’s Office from the cut, even though the Sheriff’s Office was getting “record” new revenue of $4.5 million, in Commissioner Andy Dance’s description. But O’Brien’s motion ordered the administration to provide the sheriff an additional $700,000 that the sheriff was asking for.
So the burden of cuts that would have been cut from the sheriff’s budget, the largest of all the constitutional officers’ budgets by far, was shifted back to the county and the other constitutionals–the elections supervisor, the clerk of court, the tax collector and the property appraiser.
O’Brien wasn’t done. His motion ordered the administration not only to leave the Sheriff’s Office’s budget “whole,” plus that $700,000. But it ordered the administration to exempt any raises from cuts, including at the Sheriff’s Office (a large portion of that $700,000 is to pay for raises), and to exempt any public safety departments or departments with a hand in public safety from cuts. That means the Fire Department, the second-largest chunk of the county budget. That means fleet services, which keeps the sheriff’s and fire department’s engines oiled and vehicles in fair repair. That means IT services, Flagler County FireFlight, the emergency helicopter, and facilities, since the county runs all constitutionals’ facilities.
That further shifts the burden of cuts to the constitutional and remaining county departments like the library, parks and recreation, health and human services, amplifying what those departments and constitutionals must make up.
For the Clerk of Court and the Supervisor of Elections, making new cuts may not be possible, Petito said, because they face costly state mandates they must comply with. So if the county is to assume those cuts, it would raise the overall cut from $1.9 million to $2.4 million. The new revenue of $600,000 will help, potentially covering the two constitutional officers’ budget needs. But that leaves the county with well over $1 million in cuts to cover.
“The operating reserves potentially could be reduced depending on what option they go with, but it’s not going to be just the operating reserves,” Petito said.
It did not appear as if O’Brien put much thought behind his motion. His similar, if not nearly as drastic, proposal had failed to get the commission’s support only two and a half weeks earlier. (See: “County Resists Sheriff’s Request for Additional $700,000 in Surprise 3-2 Vote, Heralding Shift.”)
The Aug. 24 meeting, scheduled a day after the primary election to minimize political factors, was to be the final budget preparation meeting–the meeting of final surprises, and the meeting beyond which the administration could confidently build and advertise the budget. The 3-2 vote was a surprise: it depended on Commissioner Joe Mullins swinging against either the sheriff’s request for $700,000 or a property tax cut. By last Wednesday, Dance–who was willing to adopt a cut in the ta rate but not with O’Brien’s conditions, nor with the additional $700,000 going to the sheriff–could confidentially tell O’Brien that his motion did not have the votes to pass.
Instead, Mullins switched again and voted with O’Brien and Commissioner Greg Hansen. Something, or someone, had gotten to him since the Aug. 24 vote. O’Brien had spent four years covering for Mullins’s atrocious behavior on and off the commission. Mullins, who was defeated in the primary with one of the largest margins on record, may have been paying back the favors to his Sancho Panza.
The commission is now barred by from rescinding that reduction in the tax rate (which is nowhere near a tax cut). But it is not barred from rescinding the $700,000 appropriation to the sheriff. “But I don’t believe they would,” Petito said, especially with the new infusion of $600,000.
That infusion is not a simple pass-through: it must be calculated into all the constitutionals’ funding formulas, including the sheriff, and it still leaves the administration with cuts to be met.
News of coming cuts last week led the Friends of the Library’s Carl Laundrie to issue a letter to the Friends’ membership alerting them that the county was “considering a huge cut to the library budget, possibly as much as $2.5 million.” Laundrie’s letter urged Friends to turn up at Monday’s commission meeting wearing green shirts and speak against the cuts. The number was inaccurate, however, given that the library’s entire budget is half that.
“Unfortunately the information, especially in that first paragraph” of the letter, Library Director Holly Albanese said today, “makes it sound like the entire library is shutting down, which is just not true. Will there be cuts to the library? There will be some.” (“It is my error and I apologize,” Laundrie posted at the Friends’ Facebook page today.)
Still, the library alone, based on the proposal now on the table, would have to cut 9 percent of its budget–$114,000 out of a $1.3 million budget, not an inconsiderable sum, and a sum disproportionate to the percentages that would otherwise be required had the cuts been more evenly shared. It will do that, Albanese said, by eliminating $20,000 from its books and other materials budget, foregoing a new $23,000 theft detection system, and eliminating the security guard the county provided the library in 2019, to considerable fanfare, when the library was contending with issues involving the homeless.
The library’s staff of 17 full-timers will be spared, which means hours and services will not be cut. Albanese had been among the directors working since last Wednesday with commissioners–she was in the office today–to minimize the impact to services. At this point, Albanese said there will be no impact to the plans to build a new south side library, which is scheduled to open in the summer of 2024.
The sheriff asked the commission to draw the extra $700,000 from the reserves. Administrators are very reluctant to do that for recurring expenses. They drew an amount similar to that a year ago so the sheriff could buy a new mobile command center, but that was a one-time expense. This year’s expense for the sheriff would underwrite raises that will be recurring.
The county has two pots of operating reserves, one to cover two months of county operations in case of an emergency like a hurricane, and to tide the county over between emergency expense and reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and its state equivalent. The other pot is a contingency reserves of around $6.2 million to cover unexpected expenses during the year. The county draws down either pots at the risk of short-changing services. Again, the $600,000 infusion will mitigate some of that. It would have normally headed straight for the reserves.
The new money is a result of “an adjustment to new construction” assessments, Jay Gardner, the property appraiser, said Sunday evening. His office had to issue new tax notices to those affected–namely, people who just built a house and are feeling the full brunt of the tax increases. “We bought new software, it’s given us fits,” Gardner said of the glitches. “A lot of mad people. Maybe I’m not the beloved property appraiser to some of these people than I’d rather be.”
The $600,000 will not appear as part of the budget to be approved in coming days because it was realized past the official deadlines of what may be in the budget documents. But the infusion is now part of the accounting of the budget and will be reflected in it after September. “At the end of the day we support whatever the board decides,” Petito said of the county commission. “We’ll make it work, we always do.”