Almost a year after closing its branch at the Staples shopping center on North Old King’s Road, the Flagler County Tax Collector will open a new, larger Palm Coast branch in the St. Joe Plaza strip mall later this month, sandwiched between the popular Brown Dog pub and restaurant on one side, Coldwell Banker’s real estate office and Ace Hardware on the other.
The 3,000 square foot location will be a vast space improvement over the Old Kings Road storefront, which was just 1,200 square feet. That location’s limited space was one reason it could no longer be used during the pandemic. Rent at the new location is $2,000 a month for the first year, rising to around $3,000 a month after that, including common area maintenance fees. The property manager is Coldwell Banker next door.
The Tax Collector signed a 63-month lease starting last Aug. 1, paying $2,000 in rent for that month, but the lease term also gave the office three months’ free rent after that, through the end of November, to give it time for build-out. The work wasn’t finished within that window. The $2,000-a-month charge picked up again on Dec. 1 and is in effect through October 2022. Rent then increases annually after that every Nov. 1, to $2,250 a month in 2022, then $2,500 a month, then $2,625 a month in the final year. (See the lease here.) The Tax Collector has an option to renew for five years after that.
In 2019 the County Commission paid $1.1 million to buy the old Sears building on Palm Coast Parkway, nearly opposite St. Joe Plaza, ostensibly to give the Tax Collector a new location and to give the Sheriff’s Office some office space. The Tax Collector was not involved in the transaction, nor in the hunt for the location: it had been approached by then-County Administrator Craig Coffey and offered the spot.
The purchase turned out to be the latest in a series of property fiascos by the commission as water intrusion and mold in the building made something of a mirror of the Sheriff’s Operations Center evacuated a year earlier for the same reason. The county subsequently sold the building at a big loss, just as it did the Operations Center. The Tax Collector stayed at the Staples location.
The Tax Collector is still paying the $3,500-a-month rent at the Staples location, even though it’s not open for public services. “We still have furniture at this point, and state equipment that we’re not allowed to move any state equipment, they have to move it, so we have to keep all the security in place, everything,” Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston said. That location had closed when all county offices closed last April, due to covid, then reopened for a few months with a limited staff. It closed again when social distancing there was not possible.
The road to St. Joe Plaza–one of Palm Coast’s original shopping strips–was circuitous.
The new location will be almost as large as the county’s other branch office, on State Road 100 in Flagler Beach. That location opened in 2017 on a 10-year lease for $3,400 a month.
The St. Joe location will provide all Tax Collector services that are provided at the two other locations except for road tests, which are conducted only at the main branch at the Government Services Building on Saturdays, and for concealed weapon permits, which are offered at the Flagler Beach location.
“Pretty much everything that we do is state business, property taxes, driver’s license, vehicle registration and tags, heavy-use tax for the IRS, Florida birth certificate, hunting and fishing licenses,” Johnston said. The office also provides work for the county–local business tax receipts and tourist tax revenue collection and analysis. This morning, Johnston appeared before the County Commission to secure a vote enabling the use of the office for county business.
“By you designating this as a county office,” Johnston said, “it opens the office up to other uses that you can do. Say you have a disaster, you need a place for FEMA. It’s designed so that we can vacate one side of the office and you could have FEMA people there to help the benefit of our residents.” The location can also host town halls or other county meetings. It can be host to the property appraiser or the clerk of court. “It opens it up to a lot of things that we really can do,” she said. The vote approving those uses was unanimous.
When the Flagler Beach location opened, the Tax Collector’s office had increased its staff by four, for a total of 39 employees spread between the three offices—eight at each of the two branches, 23 at the main office. The Tax Collector now has 42 employees. St. Joe Plaza location will draw from that total, a staffing of six to eight employees depending on how quickly the branch picks up business.
The opening of the branch has been delayed by the state, which has yet to move in equipment (only the state may do that) and by delays in construction. “It has been the biggest struggle to get the scheduling squared away, the supplies and the building materials has taken so much longer,” Johnston said in an interview today.
Some of the furniture was acquired from a Hungry Howies’ pizza shop in DeLand, for free, after it decided to renovate. Some of it was acquired also for free from the old Sheriff’s Operations Center on State Road 100 (formerly known as Mold Ops: the location was evacuated almost three years ago after it had been sickening employees, likely due to water intrusion and other structural problems.)
Johnston credited the county’s own general services division, which prepared the location for occupancy, singling out Heidi Petito, Mike Dixon and their crew. “Any time you work with a group of women, you know how it is, it’s going to be some sort of trouble,” Johnston said, unleashing her characteristic wit. “And they’ve just been fabulous working with us, they just smile and just let us do that.”
“Commissioners do not respond to that. You’re not baiting us on that,” Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien said.
“Be glad your mouths are covered up. I couldn’t see your smirk on that,” Johnston said.
A final inspection of the location should take place at the end of the week. Johnston is hoping to have a ceremonial grand opening, as she did at the Flagler Beach location, inviting as well all the St. Joe Plaza businesses, “because our commercial area is very important.”
The Tax Collector’s arrival may help to spur activity for St. Joe Plaza just as the Tax Collector branch did at the old Food Lion–now Badcock–shopping center in Flagler Beach. With the planned construction of a new 100-bed AdventHealth hospital nearby, the plaza’s businesses may see brisk activity. The Brown Dog, for example, isn’t currently open for lunch, but expects to go that route by the time the hospital opens. There’s also the possibility of yet another hospital rising past the west end of Palm Coast Parkway, in the newly designated medical plaza there.