Q+A with Nick Klufas, Palm Coast City Council
Does Palm Coast need to change with the times, or does it need to hold fast to the characteristics that made it the city it is today? Nick Klufas was elected to the Palm Coast City Council in 2016 and again in 2020 and now, at age 33, he believes that the answer is generally the latter.
He met with the Palm Coast Observer on May 19, in a Facebook Live recording of the new YouTube show, "Observations," to discuss the turmoil on the City Council as well as what he's learned about leadership.
Mayor Milissa Holland resigned on May 18 due to her daughter’s poor health. What is her legacy?
First, I would like to say that I hope the absolute best outcome for both Milissa Holland and her daughter, Tori. They’ve been through so much together.
Her legacy in Palm Coast is one that really defines the trajectory of Palm Coast. We’ve had so many great accomplishments over the last five years that finally I’m seeing come to fruition. An example is the Holland Park splash pads. These are the type of legacy projects that impact future generations.
Her legacy will be defined by the incredible job we’ve done embracing the UNF MedNex project and bringing in medical campuses to Palm Coast. I think that is going to be how we lever the tremendous student that we produce in the Flagler County school system.
You often voted in similar ways to Milissa Holland. Does your vision align well with hers?
We understand the value of Palm Coast amenities and that people choose Palm Coast because the quality of life here is so high. The utilization of our taxpayer dollars and being a responsible steward is something that I take very seriously. Over the years we have aligned on projects we agree will beautify Palm Coast. It was nice having a like-minded ally who never would shy away from any conversation we would have.
I wouldn’t say we were always in tandem, but we were able to come to a common ground and involve the rest of the council, and that is really how you get the best output from a council — when you can have open discussions, have input from all the council members, and try to come to a solution before the actual business meeting.
Are you interested in running for mayor?
I am not. My goal is to move on to the County Commission in 2024. I did think about running for mayor, but I would have to vacate my seat now. I don’t feel it’s the most appropriate time, and to be honest, with the environment right now, specifically with what has happened most recently, there’s a lot of turmoil in the air. I feel I would regret not retaining my seat, and knowing I can vote my conscience.
City Council meetings have been raucous — someone charged the dais at one meeting — and council members have gotten personal, and traded insults. Where do we go from here?
A lot of the unrest from the crowd — the majority I had never been at a City Council meeting before. The rules and procedures are not something we take lightly. So approaching the dais was complete nonsense.
But I think how we shift the tone to a more positive outlook is … we can combat the negative rhetoric, which oftentimes is “fake news,” and it just leads to more questions than actionable items.
What kind of “negative rhetoric” are you talking about?
For example, the $34 million to water the clay tennis courts. Things like that that get put out there. And the person saying these things saying, “I’m not sure if these numbers are real.”
You’re talking about Alan Lowe, who brought these numbers up at the last meeting and then defended his decision. And you feel like that’s a bad approach, to use the numbers without being sure about them?
My question is, do you feel a responsibility, before you put these numbers out to the public, that you have done research to back it up, to at least the first degree of certainty? Otherwise, you’re spreading rumors. That’s very serious.
The city’s done a great job with the racquet center, laying out all the costs. The tone around the regional racquet center was that we just came to a decision, but this has been something that’s been in the works for years. That doesn’t exactly get relayed by the individuals I don’t align myself with — in this case it was (City Councilman) Ed Danko who is relaying these things, but with a little bit of shadow, because of the allure that this was something new that he was unaware of. It creates a weird dynamic on the council, and we work best when we’re unified.
Can you sympathize with the new person who is asking, why is this racquet center the No. 1 priority? What’s wrong with looking at the rest of the priorities?
I sympathize with the headline that we’re spending $5.5 million on the regional racquet center. But there’s a big asterisk at the end of that. These are impact fees that have to be spent on new construction in parks. It’s also CRA money. These are dollars that we can’t spend on swales or sidewalks or deputies. I wish I could make the headline 240 characters long for more context.
We’re getting a racquet center. Does the city need a skate park?
The actual running cost of a skate park isn’t that much, and I’ve seen the Wadsworth skate park, and it’s packed, So I think it’s definitely an amenity that a growing city should have.
Median household income in Palm Coast is about $53,000. Typically, you try to spend no more than 30% on housing, which comes to $1,472 per month. Do we have a problem?
I don’t necessarily think we have a problem. We’re market driven.
But the diversity of our housing index isn’t diverse enough to supply everyone who works in Palm Coast a place to live.
Does government need to do something about the housing market, to make it more affordable?
I think that would be reasonable in an area that didn’t have organic expansion opportunities for the market voids to be filled. If we were in a city that had limited space, that’s when you start talking about rent control and making it livable.
"I’m hoping our city attorney can come back with ordinances that are more liberating to vehicles that are not in disrepair."
NICK KLUFAS, on the city's ordinance that prohibits work trucks in driveways overnight
Can you sympathize with that group that wants the city to stop growing so fast?
We all moved here from somewhere else. More critical to the feel of Palm Coast is keeping the feel and quality of life just as high for every new resident who moves here, and we sustain that level of service.
We do a great job spending our tax dollars to give us the quality of life we have. As long as we can sustain that, it’s more rhetoric than anything.
Honestly, if we were to ask those people, “What’s the solution?” They would say, “A moratorium on growth.” So do we lock down the city and say, “We found Palm Coast. Bet you wish you did too”?
I do sympathize specifically with people who have unknowingly bought into an area where the future land-use map is are already approved for multifamily or light commercial, and at the time of the development occurring, they’re like, “This is terrible.” But it’s been that way for the last 15 years.
When MedNexus was first announced, it came with renderings of an impressive building, and now they’re looking at leasing space instead. Does the project inspire the same excitement today that it did a year ago? Was it a sales job?
I’m still just as high about it as before. They’ve committed $1 million to scholarships for students. They have 50 students and 70 students on the books for this upcoming semester (UNF and Jacksonville University). These are realities, whether or not the actual structural building has started to be built yet. This is a sales job that is, I think, going to come to fruition. They are starting their operation immediately.
The higher-density housing that we need — Town Center was built for that.
"I think the best thing we can do as a city is have happy employees. Residents come to me, and say, 'The water utility came to my house to fix my PEP tank. Best interaction I’ve had with the city.' That is the difference between whether that person likes the city and does not. So we put such an emphasis on ensuring the happiness level of employees is high."
Are we a smart city?
Palm Coast is set up just as well if not better than any emerging city across the country, with a municipal fiber broadband utility. We have 50 miles of fiber around the city; it delivers high speed internet access to all city facilities and to a few commercial clients. We need to build off of that to offer it to any commercial business that can plug and play. And we need to use that as a smart incentive. For instance, when Gioia Sails built their second building, we gave them two years of internet, and it cost us minimal money to horizontal bore across the parking lot — a few thousand dollars. It saved them $144,000. It’s a great economic incentive because we’re not giving them cold, hard cash; we’re given them the bandwidth they need to survive.
Is our sign code too restrictive?
Measuring the temperature of our community is really important with critical issues like this. These are the type of ordinances that make Palm Coast, Palm Coast. Can you have an ordinance that says “No ugly trucks”? No, you can’t. That’s part of the sign code as well. If you have to read the words that are on the sign to make an ordinance apply to a sign or not, you can’t do that because of freedom of speech. You have to be all or nothing.
I’m hoping our city attorney can come back with ordinances that are more liberating to vehicles that are not in disrepair. People who have moved to Palm Coast knew that level of exceptional living was what they were moving to Palm Coast for; the last thing I would want to do is unravel that.
What leadership principles guide you in your role in the City Council?
I have learned so much from so many great individuals. Mayor Milissa Holland, former Mayor Jon Netts. So many Nettsisms have I applied to my life: "Those who are the first to complain are the last to make change"; "If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there."
But as far as leadership goes, you don’t ask people to exert more effort than you exert yourself. Empathetic behavior is so critical to have someone on your team, and also ensuring that those individuals who are working hard and want to be part of the team are recognized. You always try to grow from within.
I think the best thing we can do as a city is have happy employees. Residents come to me, and say, “The water utility came to my house to fix my PEP tank. Best interaction I’ve had with the city.” That is the difference between whether that person likes the city and does not. So we put such an emphasis on ensuring the happiness level of employees is high.
If you can make sure those who are fighting for you are happy and believe in the mission, I think that’s one of the most important things in leadership.