Most candidates for four Palm Coast races took part in the forum hosted by the Flagler Tiger Bay Club.
Candidates for Palm Coast mayor and City Council spoke about economic development, taxes, workforce housing and the proposed University of North Florida MedNex health care training campus during a candidate forum hosted by the Flagler Tiger Bay Club and broadcast on WNZF News Radio Sept. 24.
The race for the Palm Coast District 1 seat has two candidates: Sims Jones, who's run for City Council in the past; and Ed Danko, who is running for the first time. Danko did not attend the forum due to a prior commitment, so Jones was the only District 1 candidate there.
Jones introduced himself as the pastor at God's Love Ministries and a former New York City firefighter.
“My goal is to develop ways to relieve the tax burden on the citizens of Palm Coast, to bring down debt, to increase the involvement of the voice of the people, to lower spending to ensure equal rights to all citizens," Jones said during his one-minute introduction.
Asked if he supports the UNF MedNex project that would bring a University of North Florida health care training campus to Town Center, Jones said that he does, because it would bring jobs and opportunities for local young adults.
One question addressed Jones' prior statements in favor of starting a Palm Coast police department, asking him how he'd pay for it. The city's policing is currently conducted by the Flagler County Sheriff's Office.
Jones said he's since changed his mind.
"My initial information and reports that I got were incomplete," he said, adding that he's since looked into the costs of starting a municipal police department."When I put that up against what we are paying now with the Sheriff’s Department, it was a no-brainer," he said.
In the District 3 race, incumbent Nick Klufas, a senior software engineer who was first elected in 2016, faces challenger Cornelia Manfre, a corporate real estate agent.
Klufas said he believes the city's two biggest challenges are economic development and managing responsible growth.
“I think Town Center represents our biggest opportunity for not only solving responsible development through diversification of our housing inventory, but UNF’s upcoming MedNex campus will be a synergistic opportunity to create jobs, to create a future for students that are graduating out of our high schools today, and it’s going to offer the high-paying jobs that can support the generation of tomorrow," Klufas said.
Manfre said she was running because she's been disappointed in the city government.
"I’ve served in many community services, but I’m running because I got mad," she said. "I’ve been disappointed in the lack of friendly service and administration when people come to the city for approval and permits, disappointed with the lack of economic development for job creation, disappointed with the lack of interest in finding workforce housing solutions."
The city also needs more housing for workers, she said, including affordable single-family homes.
"There are opportunities out there to be able to produce housing that is in the hundreds rather than the 200s," she said. "In June of last year, the median house was 239 [thousand dollars], in June of this year, 269. Anybody who’s a service person making between $50,000 and $70,000 can’t afford that. It is impossible. So we have to look for alternatives."
Three candidates competing for the District 2 seat participated in the forum: Commercial real estate agent David Alfin, retired military pilot Bob Coffman and retired developer Dennis McDonald. A fourth candidate, Victor Barbosa, was not present.
"I’m passionate about the city," Coffman said. "It is a city that is enchanting, and the more you get to know it the more you like it. It’s unique. I came to preserve the balance of growth, economic opportunity and those things that make the community a place that we want to live."
McDonald said he would like the city to "remain as most of us found it."
Asked about MedNex, Coffman and Alfin said they support it, while McDonald said he did not.
"The only reason I’m not a fan of MedNex is that I can’t find any data," McDonald said. "Show me some metrics on this."
He added that he doesn't want to urbanize the city. "And that’s exactly whats’ going on," he said. "It’s got to be stopped; we’re going to ruin what we all moved here for."
Alfin said the city needs a better balance of housing options.
"I care deeply for our fire, our police, our health care workers at the hospital, our school district employees and also our city workers," he said. "A one-salary household finds it difficult to afford a mortgage and to purchase a home in the city of Palm Coast, especially with the appreciating value of our homes. So we need a balance of housing options for these people in order for our city to move forward successfully. We depend on these people for our health, for our service — for our lives, quite frankly — and we would be remiss if we did not have great options for these people to live here in Palm Coast and not have to commute in from another county."
Mayor Milissa Holland, first elected in 2016, is facing a challenge from candidate Alan Lowe.
The MedNex proposal was central to multiple questions asked of the mayoral candidates, and Holland mentioned it repeatedly as an accomplishment.
She noted in her opening comments that the city has recently funded additional Sheriff's Office deputies. And, she added, "We have also been able to achieve something miraculous in bringing the first university to the city of Palm Coast in the middle of a global pandemic, and surviving the governor’s billion dollar veto pen.”
Ensuring that all of the proposed UNF MedNex phases are completed, she said, is "going to take a lot of relationship building."
"I have those relationships," she said. "I’ve built those for over 20 years in local government, and I think that’s given me the ability to be so successful as mayor, and bring some of these projects to fruition."
The campus, she said, will create jobs and opportunities for local young people.
Lowe opened his remarks with a jab at Holland.
"With all due respect, although my opponent Milissa Holland must treat the office of mayor as a part-time job because she has another boss, I am fortunate enough to give it my full time and attention," he said. "I am self-employed and therefore have no other boss to ... be beholden to other than you, the residents of Palm Coast."
Asked whether he supported MedNex, Lowe said that he does, but was concerned about the city's decision to dedicate $1.5 million to the project during an economic downturn.
"I support the project. I don’t support the way that it has been gone about," he said. "But let's move forward with it; I would gladly pick up that baton and run with it."
One question asked Lowe to address "questions and concerns" about his past and speak about how he'd ensure ethics issues don't hamper his effectiveness in office.
He said he wasn't familiar with what the question was referring to aside from a "hit job" website.
"I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole and try to, in 90 seconds, explain why it’s all lies, incorrect and skewed," he said. "So what we would have to look for is today. The information you’re talking about happened some 20 to 30 years ago and was skewed around. There’s nothing current in my life that would interfere with ethics or any other thing that allows me to function properly."
Holland was asked about accusations that her employment by Coastal Cloud, the software company retained by the city to build the Palm Coast Connect platform, is a conflict of interest.
"I recused myself from the vote; our city attorney ... worked through all the channels to ensure that there was no impropriety," she said. "This was a contribution from a local company. ... This was a very transparent process."
View the full forum on the Flagler Tiger Bay Club's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FlaglerTigerBayClub.