It was a priceless image, one of several ironies that routinely make tea party events the captivating phenomena they’ve been across the country for two years.
Tom Lawrence, the chairman of the Flagler County Tea Party Group, was addressing 135 faithfuls toward the end of the group’s monthly meeting at Flagler Palm Coast High School’s cafeteria. He was wearing his usual blue t-shirt and its “Taxed Enough Already?” tag line. And he was telling his silent audience in no uncertain terms to lobby local politicians, particularly Palm Coast City Council members, to keep a pair of half-cent sales tax supplements on the books come election time, going so far as to call a quarter of the tax a “gift” that out of towners pay.
“We ought to be lobbying our elected officials to redo that,” Lawrence told the crowd, “because think about this: when you go to Volusia, when you go to St. Johns, you buy something, the sales tax is always around 7 percent, right? So they have enacted two one-half cent sales tax options. So we’re paying it to their governments. When they come here, they pay it to our governments, and it will save us a lot of money.”
It was the first indication that the local tea party, whose influence in local elections and initiatives cannot be understated despite its diminishing numbers and enthusiasm, would back not only the half-cent sales tax that has added $40 million to the school district’s revenue over the past 10 years, but also the more contentious half-cent sales tax that has added an equal amount to the revenues of the county and Flagler’s cities.
The county commission wants the tax renewed, chiefly to pay for a new jail and to refurbish the old courthouse to give the sheriff’s office roomier headquarters. The Palm Coast City Council is resisting, because it’s unhappy with the way the county’s proposed formula would split the money. If the county has its way, Palm Coast, Flagler Beach, Bunnell and Beverly Beach would get $7 million less over the next 10 years than under the existing formula. That money would go to the county. The county argues it’s only fair, because it would pay for a crucial law enforcement need that serves the whole county. Palm Coast doesn’t buy the argument, with its mayor, Jon nets, saying the county should bear its responsibilities like a grown-up, and assume tax responsibilities on its own.
The tug of war is endangering the success of the sales tax renewal, and even tainting the school board’s initiative, even though all local governments support that one without reserve. Curiously, the county and the city have scheduled a joint workshop on May 22—but only to discuss transportation impact fees, which are not related to the tax matter. A less defined countywide “task force” is being organized to address the sales tax conflict.
Nate McLaughlin was the only county commissioner at the tea party meeting Thursday evening. He liked what he heard from Lawrence, and said that as groups like the tea party endorse the sales tax, the Palm Coast council’s resistance would be diminished, or sidelined, with voters making the choice for the county.
What Lawrence never told his audience was that he was the architect of the 2002 version of the sales surtax, when he championed it—and sold it to voters—when he served as a Palm Coast City Council member. He also used some numbers that have not been verified.
“Here’s the key: that’s $80 million over the last decade in our county, 25 percent of that was paid by people who do not live in this county,” Lawrence said. “Let me repeat this: 25 percent of that, or $20 million, was donated to our local governments by visitors to our county. The work that was done with this money had to be done. In the city of Palm Coast, we resurfaced over 500 miles of road. That work was going to get done. So we got a gift of $20 million.”
Asked after the meeting where he got the 25 percent figure, Lawrence said it was the figure he;d known a decade ago when he was pushing the sales tax, and the figure he was hearing county and city officials use these days, though he could not cite a more precise source. The figure may have more lore than fact behind it, particularly as Lawrence acknowledged that Flagler and Palm Coast residents also spend sales tax dollars in St. Johns and Volusia County. If anything, because of Flagler’s nature as a bedroom community for St. Johns and Volusia, local residents likely spend more sales tax dollars outside the county than they receive from visitors. Whatever the actual net effect may be, there is no such thing as a “gift” approaching anything like $20 million, when Flagler residents’ spending outside the county is figured in.
Lawrence also did not speak of where the county’s portion of the sales tax revenue was spent over the past 10 years: between the sales tax revenue, some of it bonded, and an additional $33 million bond levy county voters approved in 2004, the county reaped $65 million, using the bulk of it to build the new courthouse and administration building on State Road 100, the latter earning the enduring nickname of “potato palace” for its splurging design.
Lawrence, speaking to the group, was just as positively against another proposal: “The other option that the city is talking about is imposing a tax on the electric utility bill,” Lawrence said. “We’re going to be lobbying against that, because we pay 100 percent of that. OK? And some of the early elected officials in Palm Coast said they would not do that. I think we ought to hold them to that word.”
The accountant Ken Mazzie provided the other irony of the tea party’s evening as he went around distributing his campaign literature. He’s running for county clerk of court, against incumbent Gail Wadsworth, making Wadsworth’s supervision of the courthouse funds a centerpiece of his criticism of her tenure, though it’s not clear how much traction that’s getting: Mazzie ran against Wadsworth four years ago, making similar claims, and lost, with Wadsworth getting 56 percent of the vote. Mazzie ran as a Democrat back then. He’s running as a Republican this time.
Mazzie was one of just five political candidates at the meeting Thursday evening. The others were Richard Clark, the Jacksonville Republican running for the newly created congressional district that covers Flagler County, Ray Stevens, one of three Republicans running for sheriff (John Pollinger, another Republican in that race, was holding a meet-and-greet at the Palm Coast Community Center at the same time), Travis Hutson, the Republican running for the state House, and Charlie Ericksen, a Republican candidate challenging County Commissioner Alan Peterson. Bill Kogut, a Republican running for the congressional seat, was also there, but the seriousness of his candidacy is suspect.
After the meeting, Lawrence described his support of the sales tax initiatives as a “no-brainer,” and said he sensed no negative reaction from the crowd. When he asked for questions or comments on the matter from the assembly on the matter, he got none. Lawrence said he’ll likely poll the tea party membership on the sales tax question.