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In Sharp Retreat, Flagler Rejects Countywide Beach Tax to Focus on Barrier Island Only, and on Informing Public

Shortly after sunrise today, the contractor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s barges were getting in position ahead of starting to dredge sand from offshore and rebuild the beach in the city, a project more than 20 years in the making.

Posted on June 12, 2024

A week after approving a plan in principle that would have imposed a new tax on almost all residents countywide to raise $7 million a year for beach protection, the Flagler County Commission today stepped back sharply from that plan, acknowledging that it had not done the necessary “outreach” to the public or to other local governments to ensure its success.

The county also appeared ready to reject imposing the tax across the county, refocusing instead on the barrier island communities alone–the Hammock, Beverly Beach, Flagler Beach, Marineland and everyone in between. But not just yet.

Under the reconfigured plan the commission favored today, the barrier island communities would assume half the responsibility of the needed $7 million, paying $3.5 million through a three-limbed tax on property owners. The county will assume responsibility for the other $3.5 million–$2 million of that from revenue drawn from the tourism sales surtax, and $1.5 million from the county’s general fund.

At least that’s the direction the commission gave the county administration today. It can still change, though it’s not likely to change significantly in coming weeks because no taxing plan will be presented to residents this year–not on the mainland, not on the barrier island.

Beach Management Analysis 2024

As was the case last week, both the administration and the County Commission still have a lot of work ahead. None of it eliminates this overriding reality: the county has an immediate $27 million burden ahead to pay for beach reconstruction north of Flagler Beach, and millions more to pay in coming years.

It will face additional burdens in the future as erosion and sea rise continue to grind away at the shore, and as the county will have to contribute substantial shares to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ beach-rebuilding project about to start in Flagler Beach. “Because you don’t want to build something and then not maintain it and walk away,” County Administrator Heidi Petito said.

The County Commission cannot let yet one more year pass with inaction on its fledgling beach-management plan, itself delayed many years. Flagler County is the last coastal county in the state to enact such a plan. It is finally happening. But it cannot happen without dedicated dollars. So the county will seed it with an infusion of $3.5 million, but without needing permission from taxpayers or other governments.

To do that, the County Commission must approve changing the formula that controls Tourist Development Council revenue from the 5 percent sales surtax imposed on short-term rentals, motels, hotels, camping and the like. Visitors, not residents, overwhelmingly pay that tax. Only 20 percent of that revenue–less than $1 million–is devoted to beach protection. The rest goes to promoting the county and building tourist-related facilities. The county wants to double the proportion going to beach protection. It has to decide which of the other two categories will lose the money.

The $1.5 million out of the general fund would be a one-year appropriation for now. But the commission has to decide where it will get that money from–whether from reserves, from budget cuts, or from foregoing a planned reduction in the property tax of a tenth of a mil.

Commissioner Dave Sullivan proposed appropriating the $1.5 million, as a signal of the county’s commitment–representing all county residents–but only for this year. “I honestly don’t think we can get this agreed to before our budget has to be approved this year,” he said of any other taxing plan that would require buy-in from other cities. “Let’s put $3.5 million in the coming year into this beach management fund and then work the rest of the details out following that. But only a one-year commitment, and see how it goes after that.”

Equally important is “outreach,” or education of the public that will explain what all this beach management is for, why so much money is needed, what would be a fair way of generating the revenue, how the burden would be shared, why the barrier island might pay more, why within the barrier island some property owners would pay more than others, and so on.

“The proper course is education,” Commission Chairman Andy Dance said in reaction to numerous questions the public posed today near the end of a three-hour workshop that also made clear that the county had been moving at a quicker pace than the public would tolerate.

“If we don’t have public trust and buy-in in what we’re doing, then we’re failing,” Dance said. “Going down an expedited path because we got the final result at a certain time period doesn’t dictate that we have to go down the expedited path. We follow our instincts and we follow what we need to do to properly educate the public and bring them into the fold.”

The beach nourishment project is essential, he said, but he did not want the cities forced into a timeline. “We need to be working more collaboratively,” he said. But the next step is to “work on the plan for dedicated furning moving forward.”

That plan was discussed at length, with both Stanley Geberer, a senior managing consultant with Public Financial Management Group–the county’s beach management consultant–and Jorge Salinas, the deputy county administrator, explaining how it would work.

Geberer pushed for the countywide plan, even though it had lost its support, at least for now: “What Flagler County has done and done better than some of the other places is created a beach management plan for the entire county that spans more than a generation into the future and will really take care of the interrelated aspects of these projects,” he said. “It helps spread the pain across all of the residents.”

Geberer dislikes a parochial approach, in his words, “I got my little corner over here and I’m I don’t I’m not affected by anybody else.” But he could not convince the commissioners, who were already facing a small revolt among themselves, particularly from Commissioner leann Pennington, who didn;t disagree with a management plan, but thought it should have been put forth in November, giving commissioners time to analyze it.

The option that came to the fore dropped the rest of the county from what would be a Municipal Service Benefit Unit (or tax district), and focused that tax district on the barrier island exclusively. Properties would be taxed three ways, a bit like a water and sewer bill: there would be a base fee, there would be an additional fee based on neighborhood–are you on the beach, are you east of A1A, are you west of A1A–and there would be a third component based on the value of the property (similar to the consumption component on a water bill).

Everyone would pay a base rate, which would account for half the revenue to be generated. As for the remaining 50 percent: Then oceanfront properties would assume 60 percent of the tax, properties east of A1A would assume 25 percent, and properties west of A1a would assume 15 percent.

But those are further details yet to be worked out. The numbers made Commissioner Donald O’Brien uncomfortable. He said that would be like raising taxes 9 percent on some of those property owners. “I’m not talking about the total tax bill, I’m talking about our share. So that would be like us raising county taxes 9-10 percent,” he said, “just for that.”

“That is correct,” Salinas confirmed. “But this is trying to come up with an alternative to address the need that we have to protect the barrier island. So there’s a cost for living in the barrier island, basically.” The details of that plan are outlined in the attachment below, as presented to the commission today.

“We need to proceed with this as fast as we can,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said. “I don’t know that we can get it done for this year, but for ‘26 for sure, we have to get this done and establish this pot of money.”

Last week when the commission first took on the management plan, the chamber was almost empty. This week, the workshop drew more interest, and several members of the public addressed the commission. “We’re not being creative enough at all with how to get money from more people to reduce it per head,” one member of the public said. Another, Kim Carney, the former Flagler Beach city commissioner and a current candidate for the County Commission, said: “You are bearing the weight of 25 years of no decision making by the county. Twenty-five years.”

Richard Hamilton, a barrier island resident who follows local policy closely, environmental policy especially, likely summed up broader public sentiment: “I’m perfectly willing to pay a fair share. I like your words, ‘fair and reasonable,’” he said. “I have one of the bigger homes, I expect to pay more in taxes. But it has to be fair and reasonable.” But he also noted what appears to be a gaping hole in the management plan’s analysis: it is weighed toward oceanfront property owners, when the Intracoastal also poses a significant hazard in storm surge events, as Flagler Beach found out after Hurricane Irma and again more recently.

“So you need to explain what exactly is the plan and what protections are you affording to me in Island Estates,” he said. “I’m not worried about the beach. I’m worried about the Intercoastal and the rising, and nothing in your plan does anything to improve the Intercoastal and its impact.”

The commission will again discuss the plan next Monday, but Palm Coast and Bunnell governments will not have to be concerned with a request for a resolution to buy into a countywide tax. Nor will Flagler Beach and Beverly Beach for now, but since the focus of just such a tax is now on the barrier island, the two governments are likely to have their own discussions about it when they meet next. The Flagler Beach City Commission meets Thursday.


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