We’ve become used to a county commission that likes improv. Most commissioners, with the exception of Andy Dance–for now, anyway: this commission has a way of transmogrifying its best into gorgons–aren’t interested in working too hard for their $58,400 salary. They’re certainly not interested in fulfilling one of their most important responsibilities: searching for a new administrator.
They bumbled their way through finding a home for the sheriff, and have now extended his exile to more than four years. They seem not to know the first thing about their own contracts with mosquito control. They bumbled their way in then out of that crazy scheme to give away an access point to the Intracoastal to private property owners. They’re still bumbling their way through the controversial development of a boat-storage facility in the Hammock and that lawsuit from Captains BBQ. It’s like Craig Coffey never left, though I doubt even Coffey would have let things drift this far. If the Palm Coast City Council has become a vulgar circus sullied by partisan and boorish gladiators, the county commission is amateur hour week in and week out.
The boondoggle attempt to raise the sales tax is the latest example, and one of the most consequential to taxpayers.
Commissioners shouldn’t be surprised Palm Coast said no. This all-Republican commission, by registration anyway, couldn’t pass one of the largest tax increases in recent memory on its own. They looked for cover from the sheriff’s stratospheric political capital by selling the thing as primarily benefiting public safety. And they looked for cover from the cities, hoping the cities would sign a fan letter. But they never laid the groundwork. They never gauged public sentiment. They never publicly vetted their numbers. They never had a workshop on the sales tax proposal, smothering it instead amid a mass of other possibilities so they could always say: of course we talked about it.
No, you didn’t. You covered your ass. You’re still covering your ass. Transparency has never been big with this commission.
Then came the commission’s dishonest rationales, manufactured by Jerry Cameron, the allegedly conservative administrator commissioners embarrassingly beatified earlier this week as he took his money and ran back to St. Johns, which he never really left.
Let’s look at that claim that the sales tax money is to benefit public safety–the sheriff’s office and fire services. On its face, it’s accurate. And who would oppose supporting extraordinarily beneficial agencies in the county (and the cities)? Take all revenue from that half-cent tax, and direct it to those public safety agencies. But what the commissioners aren’t telling you is that the existing half-cent tax was approved on the very same rationale 10 years ago–to pay in part for the new jail. It’s doing so. That debt hasn’t been paid off.
What the additional half cent will allow them to do is shift revenue from the first half-cent, initially intended to pay for the jail, to whatever else they please. That category includes a new south-side library, which is no less essential, if not more so, than a jail: commissioners have been promising it for years, and ignoring it for years, because no one ever won a vote banging drums for literacy or culture. But they still have to make good on it (even as they’re kicking the Bunnell branch out of its digs). So while they can, with a straight face, claim that the new half-cent tax would be devoted to public safety, the claim is a smokescreen for what the county intends to do with the other half cent, now that it is no longer so constrained by a similar promise. It’s a shift. It’s a ploy for more dollars, using the sheriff’s untouchable political luster as cover for their own vacuum of credibility. It’s deception, pure and simple.
The presentation the Palm Coast City Council heard Tuesday was the product of discussions with county staff. It was riddled with falsehoods and misleading claims, like the claim that 28 percent of sales tax revenue is generated by visitors. That’s simply false. I asked the city to verify its claim. The city said it got the figure from the county. (Not a smart excuse: Taking critical numbers at face value, especially from the fact-challenged county, makes council members look like pawns.) I asked the county to verify its claim Thursday morning before 9 a.m. I’m still waiting.
The claim is irrelevant even if it were true (it isn’t): whether a million visitors contribute or not, local residents are still saddled with the exact same additional burden of a higher sales tax. To invoke the claim that 28 percent of the tax is paid by visitors is as pointless as claiming, say, that 28 percent of the sales tax revenue is generated by the W, B and F Sections of Palm Coast. So what? C, P, R and other sections’ residents still pay the same tax amounts. The only beneficiaries of additional visitor income are government coffers. But the county prefers propagandizing the numbers behind fallacies to hide the fact, hoping no one will notice. Commissioners err when they project their laziness on the electorate.
Another repeated claim is that the state sales tax hasn’t been raised since 1988, as if that were relevant. It isn’t, because unlike the gas tax, it’s not a flat fee but a proportionate levy, and the percentage of the tax has kept up with inflation, disproportionately affecting those at the lower end of the income scale, especially people on fixed or no income, while ensuring that county coffers and city coffers keep swelling from the existing tax: that half-cent sales tax revenue for the county was already growing by about $140,000 to $150,000 a year. The claim also hides the fact that Flagler has imposed an additional percent for years, half from the school board, half from the county.
What the county also doesn’t tell you is that the school board sought and got voter approval for its share. Ironically, it was largely thanks to Andy Dance, when he was a school board member and when he did his homework, stood on street corners with signs, answered constituents’ emails and did all the other grunt work required of making the case for a tax. The work commissioners must think is for chumps.
The county used to get voter approval. It did so in 1990 and 2002. But that stopped 10 years ago when the county wanted to take revenue away from the cities and the cities didn’t support another referendum on those terms. The county wanted to lower the cities’ share of the tax from around 70 percent down to around 50 percent. Justifiably, Palm Coast said no. So the county did it unilaterally, by super-majority vote of the commission, as state law allows, snubbing voters and the cities. (Irony of ironies: Milissa Holland, then a county commissioner, was the only dissenting vote: the elected official slandered and vilified on ghost claims was even then the only one who could see past self-interested horizons).
The county may have had a fair rationale to lower the proportion in 2012 because tax revenue was earmarked for construction of the new jail, which primarily holds Palm Coast inmates. It cannot peddle that rationale now. The county could argue that Palm Coast still benefits primarily from sheriff’s operations. But if that’s the thinking, Palm Coast could then say: we’ll ask our own voters if they want a city half penny tax, and we’ll use that revenue–what would amount to $7 million in the first year, almost double what the city is paying for its sheriff’s contract–to pay for our own police department. Neither Palm Coast’s nor the county’s interests would be served by that parochial approach. But that’s what the county is encouraging. Looking out for the county’s long-term interest isn’t in these gorgons’ playbook. They have their own mythologies to feed. (Greg Hansen and Joe Mullins are up for reelection next year.)
What the county is also not telling you now is that it was planning to again tax–actually, raise the tax–without voter approval, compounding that snub 10 years ago by raising the tax yet again by a full percent. What they’re also not telling you is that because they’re so scared to ask voters’ permission, knowing most likely that voters would say no, their approach will prevent them from bonding the money: state law allows tax revenue to be bonded only if voters approve a levy. It does not allow it when a local government passes a levy without voter approval. That tells you something. State law frowns on elected officials acting like King George.
Show-off historical references aside, a county commission passing a sales tax increase unilaterally hugely limits its revenue potential. It also tells you that the commission is too lazy to bother with due electoral process and to look out for the community’s long-term interests, which may well warrant that bonding ability: who’s going to argue against supporting the sheriff and the fire services, considering how well they’ve been run (unlike county government) and how grateful residents are for both? In effect, by going the unilateral route, commissioners are saying: screw voters, screw the public interest, what matters is for us to look decisive to voters who won’t look further and get as much money as we can now to bail us out of the financial mess we (and our saintly if just-in-time departed administrator) have created.
If you think the line about screwing the public interest is too crude, too subjective, look no further than the school board’s own half-cent sales tax. That half-cent expires next year. The school board is planning to go to voters to renew it in 2022 (without Ace Andy). It has a convincing case: that half-sent paid for the technology that enabled students to seamlessly go from in-person learning to remote learning during the pandemic, and that for most of the decade had positioned Flagler at the vanguard of school districts in the use of technology.
But a tax is a tax. The school board will have to make its case all over again. And with the county commission unilaterally pre-empting it with a new half-cent sales tax on the books, voters may be excused for thinking: enough. Voters could end up unfairly and irrationally penalizing the school board over a county tax about which they had no say.
That’s the county screwing the public interest. Crude? Yes. But let’s call commissioners’ actions by their name.
Some months ago Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien, who was the gray right hope of this commission before he Romanoved over to Joe Mullins’s Rasputin, wanted to let me know he was very upset with an article characterizing him as bumbling (there’s been a few), or including him among the bumblers. He walked out before an explanation was complete, a classy move in itself considering I’d dropped everything to meet him as soon as he asked. Well, Donald, if there ever was an example to fit the bumbling, your tax scheme takes the cake. (These prayers you flaunt at the beginning of meetings imply a belief in redemption: I still believe in you, if only.)
These drunken sailor commissioners who claim to be fiscally responsible Republicans deserve what they got from Palm Coast this week. The chairman of the Flagler Beach City Commission informed me that while a similar letter of support was in the pipeline there, “it never went to agenda due to Palm Coast killing it.” And Cameron may, as one last redemptive act, have pulled the item from discussion at the next county commission meeting. If so, there’s hope.
Unfortunately, there’s no sign most of the commissioners he left behind are sobering up.