Fernando Melendez, Flagler County Commission Candidate District 1: The Live Interview

Fernando Melendez. (© FlaglerLive)
Fernando Melendez. (© FlaglerLive)

Fernando Melendez is a Republican candidate for Flagler County Commission, District 1. He is challenging incumbent Andy Dance in the Aug. 20 primary. Since no non-Republicans filed to run, it will be an open primary: all registered Flagler County voters from all parties or no-party affiliation may cast a ballot in this race, which will be decided on Aug. 20.

Three seats are up on the commission in this election cycle. Dance is the only incumbent. Dave Sullivan has opted not to run again in District 3. That race consists of three Republicans: Kim Carney, Bill Clark and Nick Klufas. Since a write-in candidate filed to run, it will be a closed primary, with only voters registered as Republicans eligible to cast a ballot.

Similarly, in District 5, where Donald O’Brien has opted not to run again, Republicans Ed Danko and Pam Richardson will face off, but since a write-in filed, the primary will be closed, and only registered Republicans are eligible to vote.

The write-ins are essentially fraudulent candidacies by individuals who have no intention of running legitimate campaigns. Their sole aim is to close the primary and prevent more moderate votes from influencing the outcome, even though the races will be decided on Aug. 20. They have disenfranchised over 47,000 Flagler County voters. They will not be interviewed, since they are not serious candidates. (See: “The Write-In Fraud” and “To Neutralize Write-In Fraud, Switch to Republican.”)

Flagler County Commission members serve four years. They’re paid $70,000 a year.

FlaglerLive submitted identical questions to all candidates, with the understanding that additional questions might be tailored to candidates individually and some follow-up questions may be asked, with all exchanges conducted by email and on the record.

The Live Interview’s aim is to elicit as much candor and transparency as possible. We have asked candidates to refrain from making campaign speeches or make lists of accomplishments. We have also asked candidates to reasonably document their claims. It’s ultimately up to the reader to judge the quality and sincerity of a candidate’s answers.

The Questions in Summary: Quick Links

The Basics: Fernando Melendez

Place and Date of Birth: New York, Oct. 18, 1962.
Current job: Property management.
Party Affiliation: Republican.
Financial disclosure.
Resume: Not turned in.

1. How have you specifically prepared yourself to be ready to succeed from day one, and what is your method at arriving at decisions? Tell us about the character flaws and unique perspectives you bring to the commission, and how you handle your mistakes or misjudgments. Who do you admire most in office today among elected officials in Flagler County—the person you’d consider a model of leadership? Who in the world at large (beyond Flagler), and among the living, do you consider a role model of political or intellectual leadership?

  1. I believe that my preparation to be successful from day one is based on my qualifications which are a combination of experience, skills, and resources. My background in education has prepared me to serve my community. I hold a bachelor’s degree in human services and psychology from Boricua College in New York and a master’s degree in political science with a concentration in economic growth from Southern New Hampshire University. I am also a Palm Coast Virtual Citizens Academy 2017 graduate, a Flagler County 2024 Citizens Academy graduate, a former board member on the 2021 Palm Coast Redistricting Commission Board, and a former Flagler County Planning and Development Advisory Board member for a three-year term serving as chair in my last year which ended just this past March (2024). I am also the current Community Director for the (KOC) at SEAS Parish. And lastly, I hold a certificate of completion from the Florida Institute for Political Leadership (2021).

My decision-making methods are through the process of interaction and consensus with my peers. My philosophy when it comes to making decisions is to continue to acquire knowledge through workshop meetings and listening to our residents as I recently did as the Chair of the Flagler County Planning and Development Advisory Board. I will fully review, take notes and meet with the County Administrator/Director of Projects AICP/Planner Etc. All beforehand and making any kind of decisions. One note that I want to make clear is that politics/ideology/principles play no role in any decision making when it comes to our county’s issues that concern all our residents.

My greatest character flaw has always been, “fear,” fear that I don’t get it right, that I don’t properly prepare for whatever it is I am working on. I am not perfect by any means, but one other main flaw of mine is always empathizing with others and their concerns or issues when I know that the rules, regulations, and even the law don’t or can’t help their cause. My unique perspective to government and as a psychology student is to highlight the needs of all residents of this county. Taking into consideration that without the residents there is no county, therefore their needs should always be considered first. Handling my mistakes is to acknowledge them and chalking them up as a learning experience and make sure not to make the same mistake twice.

I don’t have a specific county official that I can say I totally admire as a model of leadership at this point in time; however, I do have a great deal of respect and admiration for all who serve, all have their hearts in the right place and deeply care for our future. A role model of political leadership for me is Governor Brad Little from Idaho, presently showing as the best state for economic growth and ranking second overall in the U.S. Governor little is my role model when talking about economic growth. As I mentioned before, my major is in economic growth, and I believe that the county’s organic approach to economic development is simply not enough to help decrease our residents/rooftops tax burden not now or in the future. We need to balance our tax base.

 Can you give us an example of a mistake you committed as a member of the Planning Board, that affected an applicant, and how you corrected it? Surely in all your interactions with local elected officials you’ve developed at least some sense of admiration for one or two in particular. Who might that be, other than Sheriff Staly (who seems to be everyone’s easiest pick)?

Serving on the planning board for the very first two meetings was a learning curve for me personally. As a new member of the planning board my mistake was to miscalculate both the agenda package and the time allotted to digest and go through it. I had to quickly adjust to achieve a level of knowledge to serve applicants in their best interest. Thankfully my mistake in my opinion did not affect any applicant negatively in any way.

I do admire Commissioner David Sullivan for both his dedication to serving and his wide variety of input when it comes to discussions on many of our issues and concerns. I think his deep understanding of county policies will be missed after his retirement. He has always been available to all our community events and has never said no to attending any of the many different ethnic events in our county.

See Andy Dance’s answer.

2. Give the current commission a letter grade on its performance in the last two years. Explain with specific examples where it has been lacking and where it has excelled, and what specific experience and qualities you will bring to improve its effectiveness.

I give the current commission a B minus for the last two years.

Lacking Examples- Housing and affordability

Economic Development

Costly policy making decisions

Taxation

Expenditures and spending

Infrastructure, Roads, Bridges, Lighting, and Stormwater.

Excelled- Beach Renourishment Efforts.

  • These are all lacking especially when it comes to housing and affordability. After two joint meetings with the Planning Board and the County Commission, which I attended both as chair of the Planning Board, the county hasn’t come up with any solutions on how to work with established developers. According to Commissioner Hansen “we should keep this county as rural as we can.” Check out link below fast forward 1: 13  . It is required as part of state statute to address the housing elements in our county as part of the Comprehensive Plan. The county has found it to be an issue that is increasingly hard to tackle and needs guidance. Excuse after excuse, “We are naive” “Cap on resale” value is also a legal issue. Check out this link , fast forward 54:55
  • When it comes to Economic Development it’s not even listed as an element required in the comprehensive plan, therefore it shows exactly the commitment the county has when talking about economic growth. (None) After shutting down the Economic Development Department we had, now the county has basically gone with the generic approach. This is a wait and see if economic growth happens on its own. This approach will never let us balance out our tax base.
  • The County should rethink twice on its policy making decisions, they have proven to be costly. Real Estate)such as the Captains Barbeque restaurant debacle and others (Sheriff’s Operations Center and Sears building), going back some time where taxpayers lost millions of dollars and we are still paying for it.
  • Taxation: Stop pushing for the half cent sales tax or try to raise property taxes every time the county finds themselves scrambling to find more funding. Be more fiscally responsible.
  • Stop spending on things the county doesn’t need now, and taxpayers do not want to pay for. A New Helicopter $5.5 million, New Drone $250K, New Building (Nexus Center) – a multi-purpose facility to house both a new library and the county’s Health and Human Services Department at a total of 16 million with approximately half coming from existing library passport fees and another portion $4 million from a state grant. You, the taxpayer, will pay 8 to 9 million.
  • Infrastructure, Roads, Bridges, Lighting, and Stormwater. With 16,000 new residents moving into Flagler County within the last three years, we need to not only look to maintaining and improving our infrastructure but expanding it to get ahead of the growth. Infrastructure needs are lacking and resurfacing SR100 instead of expanding it is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

 In fairness to Commissioner Greg Hansen, the context of his remarks were the county’s agricultural lands on the west side, protecting the farming community that has been an essential part of the county–not to keep builders from building where the zoning is appropriate. Are you suggesting that Palm Coast and Bunnell should sprawl west without heed for the agricultural lands? The workshops you linked to seemed to be attempts at exploring ideas to foster or encourage affordable housing, rather than offer “excuses.” What couple of ideas would you propose?  How long would you have held off on buying a new emergency helicopter even though FireFlight was already used when the county acquired it 22 years ago?  

I do agree that protecting our agricultural lands is vital, I never said it wasn’t and suggested neither, my point however was directed at the messaging from our County Commission on being so poor and lost and needing guidance on housing. Taking into consideration that these commissioners have had not one but two terms in office, eight  years of serving our county, you would imagine that some ideas or brainstorming should’ve taken place by now.

I would look at modeling other counties that are making it work for them, Maybe looking for some outside developer that specializes in smaller homes with smaller footprints and less square footage, therefore making it affordable for our young families to achieve their dreams of owning a home. So, after eight years you are telling me that they haven’t had sufficient time to do something about it? And should still be exploring ideas on how to encourage affordable housing? Maybe they should’ve been holding off on spending and finding ways to tax us residents more but instead doing their homework on workforce housing. Which brings up the helicopter question. I’m not saying we don’t need a new helicopter, what I was saying was, do we need one at this very moment? At $5.5 million, and that’s just for starters, what about maintenance, insurance and pilot training, for sure another couple of millions. I would have waited at least another two or three years and I would have made sure we budgeted for it. We can’t continue this path with this kind of spending.

[Editor’s note: The county’s total flight operations budget, which essentially cover FireFlight’s operations, including personnel, fuel, training and so on, added up to $706,000 in 2019, and rose to $749,000 in 2022, excluding a $1.6 million allocation for the new helicopter. The proposed budget for 2024-25 projects total expenses of $905,000, driven in part by rising insurance, rising fuel costs, and a more expensive maintenance agreement–nowhere near “a couple of million.”]

See Andy Dance’s answer.

3. What are two goals where you are most aligned with the current commission’s goals, two with which you differ, and two you would seek to add, and explain how you intend to convince the commission to follow your lead.

  • Goals aligned with the County Commission: Working on long term beach restoration plan and applying for more state and federal grants for our capital improvements projects.
  • Two Goals in which I differ on: Countywide Beach renourishment tax, half cents sales tax.
  • Two Goals- seek to add, Economics Growth and Housing/Affordability.
  • I look to do a lot of convincing as well as data study to explain and convince the other commissioners for a consensus.

You support the county’s beach management plan yet you oppose its funding method. How would you pay for the plan?

I do support it. I don’t oppose it, but it’s funny how no one is talking about it since it’s election season. I’ve been the only one bringing it up and trying to start the discussion but falls on death ears. My point is the on the beach renourishment countywide tax, that it should only be explored after all other options have been exhausted. I am not talking about grants, I’m suggesting we look at options such as a 0.5 percent seasonal tax, perhaps a meal tax, a $10 dollar on every $100 of Ad valorem tax on properties where the owners live outside the county or state and even investigate a land transfer fee/tax, maybe a parking fee at Flagler Beach might be an option. All these are viable and will finally help dilute our countywide tax to a more reasonable ask from our taxpayers. County taxpayers are fed up with paying taxes and fees as well as making up for the county’s mistakes.

“$10 dollar on every $100 of Ad valorem tax on properties where the owners live outside the county or state”? But absentee owners are already paying significantly more in property taxes than the homesteaded. How would an additional–and likely legally untenable–surtax based exclusively on absentee ownership be fair?

See Andy Dance’s answer.

4. Taxes: The county needs new revenue. Would you support raising the sales tax half a penny? Are you opposed to property tax increases? What three specific line items would you cut from this year’s proposed budget to keep the property tax where you’d want it?

NO and YES

I would start by looking at all individual budgets of all departments and see where the spending is going towards. For example, Human Resources has a request for this year’s budget at an increase of 17.10%. That’s one that I would look at cutting. Seems a bit excessive. I would then look at our General Services – Facilities Management since its budget request is at an 18% increase. And lastly, I would investigate overall staffing and utilities to see if there’s any possible saving in that area. HR, General Services – Facilities Management, and staffing and utilities.

In real terms the HR increase is $145,000, some of which is accounted for by a cost-of-living adjustment, and the General Services-Fleet Management is just a 2.64 percent increase, as you can see from the link. How would such cuts affect the property tax rate? The county is looking for additional revenue in the millions (the sales tax increase would generate roughly $5 million) to tackle capital needs. How would you find that sort of sums in “savings” that don’t encroach on the county’s contractual obligations to employees, plus rising operational costs?

Here you go again with the Sales Tax increase! We wouldn’t have to generate it, by simply cutting the spending of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars on things that the county doesn’t need, and residents don’t want to pay for. If we were to hold fast to fiscal discipline, we might even see a surplus.

See Andy Dance’s answer.

5. State law requires schools to have armed security in each school, and Flagler schools have chosen to do that with sheriff’s deputies, paid for half with the state’s allocation of Safe Schools dollars from the district, and half through general fund dollars appropriated by the County Commission. The Commission has signaled some interest in scaling back its commitment, but not if it means reducing security in any way. The sheriff is proposing a 60-40 split, with the school board assuming 60 percent of the cost. Do you support that shift? Do you see alternative ways of shifting the cost?

Yes, I support the 60-40 split, with the school board assuming the 60 percent. With the population growth bearing down on us, despite the growth the enrollments are not quite there, and they haven’t been for some time. So, why should the Sheriff’s department take the hit on paying for it, when they can be allocating their own funds elsewhere where really needed. The school is its own government per se, and as such receives impact fees from builders, school taxes from homeowners etc. I totally disagree with the county commission’s reasoning for scaling back its commitment, they said it was due to it reducing the security in schools. No, that’s not factual, the reason for them walking it back was because of the sudden outcry of the schools themselves, the parents, the school superintendent Lashakia Moore, as well as the public. The county as usual was scrambling for much needed funding and thought that was a good idea to start cutting costs. An alternative way to pay for it would be if the county would stop spending and hold to fiscal discipline.

To be sure, the Sheriff’s Office is not paying for SRDs, the county is assuming that share, with which it pays for SRD services in schools. Are you saying that the money you would save on SRDs would still go to the Sheriff’s Office, but for other purposes?

Yes, the county will continue to fund the legacy program that includes the SRD services in schools only after an embarrassing attempt to find other funding sources. The mere fact that the letter was authorized by our commissioners to be presented to the school superintendent looking for other options to pay for it threw the schools and the community in for a surprise. I believe the county should continue to fund the program and keep the safety of our children in place. The FCSO has its own budget and should continue to use it to fight crime, drugs, and traffic violations.

See Andy Dance’s answer.

6. Where do you stand on school concurrency, and were you supportive of the commission rolling back the district’s initial ask for a doubling of school impact fees?

I agree that some changes must be made when it comes to school-concurrency standards. Our times have changed and it’s very evident in the enrollment numbers that the student capacity in our schools is not nearly being met. So, development proceeds should only be considered when the sufficient student capacity data shows trends towards capacity. If studies show less enrolment year after year, why then should the school district require up front impact fees? I do stand on school concurrency when our schools need it. A pay- as -you go approach is more likely the way to until capacity numbers change. I do not support the districts initial ask for a doubling of school impact fees.

See Andy Dance’s answer.

7. Evaluate the county’s long-term beach-management plan–specifically, its taxing approach. How would you raise the needed $7 million a year, understanding that there are no grants ahead? Do you consider the amount sufficient? Is the taxing-district method that weighs the heavier tax burden on the barrier island appropriate? Should all county taxpayers and zones pay equally? Is doing nothing an option? If not, please explain.

Seven million will not nearly be enough. The county’s long-term beach- management plan unfortunately isn’t concrete yet due to the lack of funding sources. The county’s lack of communication with its residents, particularly the barrier island residents, is short of astonishing. Scrambling for funds has become the county’s M.O. which represents a discernible pattern. Back tracking from many of its attempts to raise funds whether from half cent sales tax, to now a countywide beach renourishment tax has all but become nothing more than messy attempts. I do support a modest, more reasonable but equal countywide fee for all residents and perhaps investigate all other options on the beaches as far as parking fees, if possible, TDC, some appropriations from the general funds as well, and lastly fiscal restraint. I am completely against the taxing- district method to weigh in the heavier tax burden on beachside residents that already pay higher taxes. Doing nothing isn’t an option period.

See Andy Dance’s answer.

8. Evaluate the performance of County Administrator Heidi Petito, listing strengths, weaknesses and areas of concern.

Strengths- possesses thorough knowledge of the principles of public administration as well as procedural practices.

Weaknesses- government accounting and government budget spending, intergovernmental relations.

Concerns- policy proposals, spending proposals, and lacking the future vision in preparing for growth.

Since you are the only County Commission candidate challenging an incumbent, let’s broaden the question to include Andy Dance specifically, as opposed to the more general question about the commission above. Dance has built a solid record as a level-headed , thoughtful pragmatist and consensus-builder. How would you evaluate his tenure, and what is your convincing argument that he should be replaced?

Thank you for the question and opportunity, I personally believe that there are others with those exact same traits on the county board of commission and as should be when serving the public’s best interest. As a landscape architect, which is an admirable profession, and as a planning environmentalist professional that he is, his platforms center around the Eco systems and Environmental aspect of our county. All of which are very important when it comes to protecting wildlife corridors, microclimate concerns, environmentally base concerns etc. The truth of the matter is that after speaking with hundreds upon hundreds of residents while petitioning for signatures the consensus is that he’s completely disconnected and out of touch with the issues at hand. Residents want to see tax relief, economic growth, housing affordability, infrastructure improvements, all which he hasn’t even tried to address. In his last live interview four years ago, he stated at length how he was going to tackle economic development, there is not one economic plan with his print on it. In fact, to my point he voted to do away with the county’s Economic Development Department. He also voted against expanding our commercial tax base when he voted on a 240-unit apartment complex on SR100 near BJs. The residents give him a D- and that’s why he should be replaced.

[Editor’s note: The County Commission voted to end the county’s economic development department  in January 2020. Andy Dance was not sworn in as a commissioner until November that year. Melendez’s claim that “residents” give Dance a D- is not supported by any available survey or evidence, including none provided by Melendez, and would be more accurately understood as Melendez’s grading his opponent.]

See Andy Dance’s answer.

9. With the county’s population exceeding 130,000, where do you stand on the county and its three major cities devising a collaborative public, surface, fixed-route transportation system that goes beyond the county’s current limited operation? How would such a system be paid for?

A public transportation system to cater to the increasing population will no doubt have to be considered as we continue to grow. Working in the school bus industry for 25 years in the city of New York with the Department of Education, I was tasked with assigning field trips to hundreds of drivers daily based on their routes and proximity to their schools. I believe that the only difficulties will come from Palm Coast when structuring a routes system consistent with the matrix and metrics when it comes to problem areas for delays, speed, and capacity for all the considered daily trips as well as fixed routes. This is where key data will come in handy in determining paths, from point A to destinations. It will be a challenge, but I believe I can bring some knowledge to the table. The public bus systems are usually self-sustainable after it is up and running.

See Andy Dance’s answer.

10. The sheriff’s budget plus the capital budget have risen rapidly, with the continuing addition of deputies and more planned ahead: 20 over the next five years in the county, 37 more in Palm Coast. In light of persistently low crime rates—and taking account of population growth–where do you place the point at which expansions in budgets and ranks outweigh the benefits, or become more burdensome on the county’s overall budget than necessary? Is there such a thing as overfunding police?

I don’t believe in overfunding Law Enforcement. We all know what population growth does, it amplifies the financial responsibilities of our county government for services such as Law Enforcement, Fire, Infrastructure, etc. But at the same time, it also amplifies crime, so, staying ahead of crime is very important. I don’t believe that the expansion in budgets and ranks do not outweigh the benefits because contrary to what police spending data can and cannot explain, the reality is that we have a very low crime rate envied by many other cities. That’s in part because we make sure that our Law Enforcement stays in front of the curve. Do I believe our police department is overfunded? No.

See Andy Dance’s answer.

11. Have you ever been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor anywhere in Flagler, Florida or the United States (other than a speeding ticket), or faced a civil action other than a divorce, but including bankruptcies, or faced any investigative or disciplinary action through a professional board such as the bar or a medical board? If so, please explain, including cases where charges or claims did not lead to conviction or disciplinary action.

No, No, No, and No.

See Andy Dance’s answer.

 

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