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Palm Coast Wednesday, Sep. 7, 2022 2 months ago

Facing backlash, council looks for ways to reduce proposed tax rate

Also: Palm Coast prepares to replace its oldest fire station.
by: Jonathan Simmons Managing Editor

After hearing a series of angry comments from residents at a Sept. 6 meeting, Palm Coast’s City Council members will each go through the upcoming year’s proposed budget looking for expenses the city can cut to reduce the proposed tax rate.

The council meeting chambers were packed for the council’s Sept. 6 meeting. Over a dozen people spoke during the meeting’s public comment period to complain about the city’s proposed tax increase, even though the tax rate wasn’t on the meeting agenda. Audience members, defying Mayor David Alfin’s instructions, repeatedly applauded and cheered for speakers they agreed with.  

The council itself briefly descended into yelling, with Councilman Ed Danko raising his voice at Councilman Eddie Branquinho as Alfin tried to keep order. 

The city has been proposing to keep the tax rate flat, at  $4.6100 per $1,000 in taxable value.

But because property values have increased, that rate would bring in a higher overall dollar amount of tax revenue for the city in the coming year than it did in the current year — by about 15% — and would therefore constitute a tax increase.

The Holland Park splash pad. Courtesy photo

Homesteaded houses would be shielded from much of the impact by  state law capping annual increases in assessed value at 3% for homesteaded properties, but commercial properties, non-homesteaded properties and rental properties would not — the cap for them is 10%.

“I’d like to congratulate all of you on your salary raises this year,” one resident told the councilmen, referring to the 150% salary increase the City Council had approved for itself earlier this year. The increase will raise councilmen’s salaries to $24,097 and the mayor’s to $30,039  after the November elections. “... On another note, I am a widow on a fixed income, and I lived here because the rates were good, the taxes are great and I grew up on Flagler Beach.”

Another resident, Ken McDowell, noted that everything seems to be getting more expensive.

“Everything else around all of us have to buy to live is going up 15,  20%, or more — just food, fuel for our vehicles etc.,” he said. “This is unconscionable to even propose a tax increase for this city.”

Councilman Eddie Branquinho said he’d love to cut taxes, but doesn’t want to reduce services to do it. He said the increase will be slight for most residents. 

“The vast majority of the people in Palm Coast are homesteaded,” he said.  He said his own taxes would be rising  by $51 .

“Now, we could cut — no more cops, no more firemen,” he said, drawing groans from the audience. But, he added, “We’ve got to give you what you need.” Just fixing roads in the upcoming year, he said, is expected to cost $7 million. 

Danko, who ran on a pledge  that he “would rather drink antifreeze” than raise taxes, urged his fellow councilmen to bring the tax rate down to the rolled-back rate — the rate that would generate the same dollar amount of tax revenue as the city government received last year. 

“All I’m asking my colleagues to do is roll back this millage rate, one year — one single year,” he said. 

He urged them to go through the budget and find things to cut.

“I have not heard one person on this council, not one single person,  say ‘Hey, we can make a cut right here.’ Not one cut, guys,” he said. 

He proposed a hiring freeze.

Councilman John Fanelli noted that a lot of the projects that locals might criticize as luxuries, like the city’s proposed southern recreation center, aren’t paid for primarily with city tax dollars and therefore have no impact on the millage rate. 

“Lehigh Trail had no impact that won’t affect your taxes. At all,” Fanelli said. “... I want to be a good citizen, a good neighbor and a good friend to all of you. But sometimes doing that means making hard decisions, decisions that aren’t favorable, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Councilman Nick Klufas noted that the city’s proposed budget is based in part on council members’ project proposals. He said he was willing to wait on one of his — a feasibility study about converting city facilities to solar power — and suggested that Danko’s proposal to have the city dredge its saltwater canals for navigation could also be postponed.

“Let’s get rid of our saltwater canal dredging for at least a year,” Klufas said. “... There’s about 25 boats that we’ve talked about that can’t navigate the canals during low tide. Do we have a small violin for them?...  I think that’s something that we can eliminate. Let’s do it. Let’s save money.”

Branquinho suggested that the council could roll back the salary increase it had granted itself. He’d been the only one to vote against it. He said he challenged Danko to do so. 

“Why would you challenge me?” Danko asked. Danko raised his voice as the mayor, who’d been attempting to give each council member a few moments to voice their position unimpeded, tried to cut him off.

“I’ve just been called out, and I’m going to answer,” Danko said. 

“No, you’re not,” Alfin replied. 

They went back and forth, Danko criticizing Branquinho as Alfin tried to stop him.

“Why don’t you get on a plane and go back to Portugal,” Danko said to Branquinho, who is from Portugal and had just returned from a visit there. 

“Councilman, relax,” Alfin said, before adding his own comments.

“I suggest that each City Council member detail the line items that they would like to adjust or have the city manager adjust,” Alfin said, noting that the council would be meeting on Thursday, Sept. 8, for its first public hearing on the budget. 

“I would challenge myself and each council member: If there are line items in the budget that you feel are exaggerated or are inappropriate, please reach out to city manager between now and Thursday,” he said.

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