After Din of Opposition and Another Screaming Match, Palm Coast Council Will Consider Cuts in Tax Hike

Palm Coast City Council members Tuesday evening agreed to suggest budget cuts ahead of Thursday’s budget hearings in hopes of possibly lowering the proposed 15 percent property tax increase, after hearing from about 30 residents who complained about their taxes. The council did so after some of its members again degraded into a screaming match after Council member Eddie Branquinho challenged Ed Danko to roll back the 151 percent raise to his and other council members’ salaries he’d supported.

It was another ugly moment that ended with Danko telling Branquinho to get on a plane back to Portugal, and a boiling over of an unusually heated tax season that hasn’t lacked for clumsy marketing on the council’s part: Mayor David Alfin’s defense of the tax increase last week, using a prop of Garfield, the cartoon character (and one-time marketing tool for ITT’s sale of Palm Coast lots, in the mid-1980s) appeared more condescending than instructive even as much of the debate has been undercut by misinformation and exaggerations inflamed by a candidate for council (Alan Lowe) whose homesteaded property is paying zero taxes.

The overwhelming majority of property owners in the city, including almost all of its homesteaded property owners, will not see a tax increase of more than 3 percent, commercial properties will nto asee an increase of more than 10 percent, but the revenue generated by the city will be about 15 percent higher than if the council were adopting a tax rate that would keep revenue flat, even though the council is keeping the tax rate flat. Under Florida law, even when the tax rate remains the same, if revenue increases, it’s a tax increase.

The majority of the tax burden’s pain is being felt by people moving to Florida and experiencing local tax bills for the first time, without the protection of homestead or other exemptions. It can be a sticker shock. The city attorney tried to explain the disparities, attributing the shock to how state law dictates the value of properties with and without exemptions. “So if you’ve recently moved here, or you are coming from another state, you’re going to see certain increases that other residents don’t have because they’ve been long term residents of Florida or they don’t meet any of the required exemptions under the statute,” the attorney said.

Some 30 people addressed the tax increase over the course of an hour-and-20-minute public comment segment, reflecting, ironically, the popularity of Palm Coast: they’d moved from Oklahoma, Michigan, New Hampshire, Idaho, elsewhere in Florida, all in the past couple of years and were among the residents pushing the city’s population near the 100,000 mark (it is at 94,000 by the latest census Bureau’s estimate). But they were among the people calling the tax increase “unconscionable,” “abominable,” “ridiculous,” speaking of “mistrust” of the council, and saying things like: “I’m very sorry that we moved into this town.” “I wish we could impeach you.”

One resident spoke of moving to Palm Coast last November from Michigan, and discovering that her property tax would not carry over the previous owner’s values “protected” by the Save Our Homes cap on tax increases, resulting in a 247 percent tax increase. She described how neighboring properties pay widely disparate taxes, based on their exemptions. “The differences are eye-opening. I struggle with this disparity,” she said. She did not say what her property tax bill had been in Michigan. Another spoke of moving to town “10 minutes, or actually two weeks,” and seeing two successive tax increases, making him regret his move.

The tax increase was again and again paired with the council’s recent raise, a raise of unprecedented size and guile.

“No. Let’s not raise taxes. But guess what? Next year alone,” Branquinho said at the end, “fixing your roads: $7 million. Fixing the roads. Actually it’s more than that.” The proposed streets budget is $8.4 million, up from $7.5 million this year. On the criticism about building a new public works facility, he said: “Have you seen the conditions for the last 20 years that the people work at public works? To the point that we have to come up with a new building, these people out there couldn’t even keep a computer in a room because it was raining in those rooms.” He said taxpayers are feeling the effects of surging property values, with his own home going from $230,000 when he bought it to close to $600,000. “That’s mind boggling,” he said.

Danko said he would vote against the tax increase at next Thursday’s budget hearing. “We do need certain things. We do need police. We do need firemen. We do need EMTs. We do need roads. We need clean water. But there’s a lot of things that we can hold off for at least one single year. We have suffered a lot,” he said, calling for rolling back the tax rate for this year. “I have not heard one person on this council. Not one single person say hey, we can make a cut right here,” he said, his voice rising to within shouting range. But other than proposing a hiring freeze and not hiring a $5,000 social media consultant, he had  no other cuts. (He proposed suing the contractors of Holland Park’s broken, $5.1 million splash pad and scrapping the whole thing, but that wouldn’t save money so much as attempt to recover it, though the city is currently spending more as it decides what route to take: repair, replace or discard.)

“It just doesn’t come from the city,” Danko continued. “For those of us homesteaded it, it may be a small amount. But then you got the county, you got the schools, you got everything.” In fact, the school tax rate is declining, reducing Danko’s taxes on his W-section home by about $40. His overall tax bill is not expected to increase by more than $73, with $15 of that due to a surprisingly steep increase in the mosquito control tax.

Branquinho then took a swipe at Danko, saying a hiring freeze would mean no new firefighters, no new sheriff’s deputies (the fire department would add two firefighters and a fire inspector with the new budget, the Sheriff’s office would add five deputies to its Palm Coast policing contract, for a total of 48 after adding 10 last year, more than doubling the numbers from 2017). He then said the council should start with its own and cut its proposed salary raise,  which will increase the budget by $157,000–more in subsequent years.

“I challenge Councilman Danko to do that,” Branquinho said.

“Why would you challenge me?” Danko interrupted, out of order, asking Branquinho why he wouldn’t challenge other members of the council and prompting Alfin to yell, “Councilman! Councilman!”

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

“No, you’re not,” Alfin yelled back, gaveling. “You’re going to speak to me.”

“How dare you, how dare you!” Danko screamed, bringing up the way Branquinho stormed out of the council meeting in mid-July as Alfin attempted to stop him from speaking directly to Branquinho. Danko then finished with a chauvinistic flourish: “Why don’t you get on a plane and go back to Portugal.” (Branquinho, who is of Portuguese extraction, had just been visiting family in Portugal, but had participated in meetings electronically.)

The younger voices on the council were more measured. Council member Nick Klufas agreed with finding more items to cut. “If we really want to be respondent to the individuals sitting out in this audience, we need to identify things that we need to cut. We need to do that,” he said. He had no issue pushing back a “solar feasibility report” for a year, as it has been, even though he said it would be an investment that would end up “pay the city back.” He proposed pushing back a year saltwater canal maintenance.

“I’ll tell you no matter how hard I try, and I heard it from many of you tonight, I cannot keep the same budget that I currently have and maintain the same level of care and services in my home,” Council member John Fanelli said, before noting that he won;t see a cent of the coming raise, since he’s an appointee who’ll be replaced by the elected member to the council in November. He said there’s no fat to cut in the budget–and the park projects at Lehigh Trail and the coming Tennis Center expansion .will not include property tax revenue. ” A lot of the numbers that I heard tonight were not accurate numbers, not even close,” he said.

“I appreciate your challenge,” Alfin told Klufas. “I suggest that each city council member detail the line items that they would like to adjust or have the city manager adjust. Meet with call the city manager between now and Thursday. And I’ll reserve my comments because quite frankly, tonight. The budget is not on the agenda. Our first hearing for the budget budget is this coming Thursday. So I would challenge myself and each council member: if there are line items in the budget that you will feel are exaggerated or are inappropriate, please reach out to city manager between now and Thursday.”

Branquinho still motioned to rollback the salary increase, but he got no second.

Alan Lowe, the candidate for a council seat, had started off the public comment segment. He had filmed a campaign video inside the council chamber against the tax increase, with Danko enabling him to get into the chamber over the weekend in an end-run around city policy. Lowe recalled the analogy Alfin had used last week to justify the tax increase, using a three-legged stool analogy (and a cartoonish Garfield prop), adding a fourth leg he said the mayor had neglected: the taxpayers paying for it all. ” Potentially, you’re forcing people to move away as life here becomes unaffordable,” Lowe said, in direct contradiction with current trends. “Garfield’s calling and he says he’s not in favor of the tax increase,” Lowe said.

Mike Cocchiola, one of the few speakers not to oppose the tax increase (and who started his remarks by referring to the “arrogance and a lack of good judgment” of the Danko-Lowe video), said that “nobody in the city is going to be paying 15 percent” more in taxes, the exception being new residents who don’t benefit from tax caps. Another spoke of the misplaced blame on the tax increase, as opposed to surging property values.

Many spoke about the shock of seeing their tax bill differ so drastically from that of the previous property owner. Others spoke about the city’s recreational facilities like the Tennis Center and its coming expansion. There was criticism over the city ending its relationship with Waste Pro, the garbage hauler, in favor of another provider, paired with criticism about traffic, the ongoing housing boom, the addition of apartment complexes and the false claim that “they turn into ghettoes”). A lot of that criticism was intended as a contrast to the mayor’s and council’s claim last week that the tax increase was necessary to maintain the city’s quality of life. “Whose quality of life will I pay for? It’s not going to be ours on Florida Park Drive,” one homeowner said, referring to  a road that’s draw perennial criticism for noise, pollution and speed over the years.

A speaker addressed the increasingly poor conditions of the roads that are “starting to look like Philadelphia.”

“I’d like to congratulate all of you on your salary raises this year,” another speaker began, “And I also want to talk about checks and balances on current projects.” She spoke of living on a fixed income and seeing all her bills increase before saying that the tax increase would “take dinner away from me,” which would not be accurate, since she would not see that increase: as a homesteaded widower, she likely qualifies for an added senior exemption to her property taxes. The same was true of another property owner who is a disabled veteran: he would qualify for an additional exemption.

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