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Ormond Beach Observer Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 7 months ago

Here are five issues highlighted at Volusia County Council workshop last week

With a list of 18 topics to go through, the council focused on the county legal department, affordable housing and paying to park at the beach, to name a few.
by: Jarleene Almenas Associate Editor

For the first workshop of 2020, the Volusia County Council listed a total of 18 topics to discuss. 

Some of them were merited longer discussions than others at the Thursday, Jan. 9th workshop, such as outlining expectations for the County Attorney's department. Others, like implementing a citizens academy and gauging where the county was at in terms of a smart growth discussion with municipalities, were quickly addressed. 

Then, there were issues that council decided merited an entire workshop alone to work out, namely the future of Volusia Forever and the ECHO program.

Here are five issues the council discussed at length during the workshop, and what steps the elected body decided to take in addressing them this year:

1) The county's legal department

The council didn't wait long to appoint a new interim county attorney after Dan Eckert resigned. At the council meeting before the workshop, Michael Dyer was appointed to serve in the position until the county found a permanent hire. This occurred despite the fact that Eckert, who submitted a letter of resignation on Dec. 10, was supposed to stay on until Jan. 31.

At the workshop, the council decided to take their time in looking for Eckert's replacement, with Councilwoman Deb Denys saying it wasn't time-sensitive and the search didn't need to be expedited.

Inevitably, the discussion on how the legal department should operate moving forward circled back to the the Historic North Turn Legends Beach Parade issue. Denys said she wanted more frequent updates regarding legal inquiries requested by council, as well as be presented with alternatives in cases like the Legends beach parade.

“I want options," Denys said. "I don’t want to be just told ‘no, no you can’t do it.’”

She also suggested the county look into asking for outside counsel when needed, but Councilwoman Barb Girtman disagreed. Staff should be able to handle their requests (the county has 13 attorneys), and the issue goes beyond just the legal department, she said.

“This is the culture of the county that they are accustomed to steering information with their recommendation, and what we’re saying is we need full disclosure, more options,” Girtman said.

Councilwoman Billie Wheeler said the council should see how requests are worded to the legal department to ensure it is reflective of what the council asked for. All responses, she added, should be in writing as well. 

With major department head changes having occurred in the last year since County Manager George Recktenwald took over for Jim Dinneen, Wheeler said "this is the time fo us to make a change." That includes written evaluations for the county attorney and Recktenwald, who said he will direct staff to come back with recommendations on how to proceed.

2) From a council to a commission

The Volusia County Council could be called the "Volusia County Commission" should a charter amendment be placed and passed in the 2020 ballot. 

This was a topic brought up by County Council Chair Ed Kelley, and agreed upon by several members of the council, who said some have confused them as representatives of cities rather than a county due to their current titles. 

Kelley also suggested changing the title of chair to mayor, but the idea died at the workshop. Another amendment suggested for 2020 is to change the requirement of having to hold the first council meeting of the year on a Thursday. 

The council also discussed their salaries and travel policy, the latter also a proposed topic by Kelley. Council members are paid $45,240 for serving, said County Public Information Officer Kevin Captain in an email. The County Council Chair is paid $9,000 more, with a salary of $54,288.

These figures, according to the council, are low. Council members also discussed how they are not reimbursed for travel inside the county, which Kelley said has cost him $25,000 in the last couple of years.

County Councilman Ben Johnson said they should look into increasing the salaries — but only if the increase is put into place after all of them are out of office.

“This is for the long-range good of the county of Volusia and the County Council but it’s not for in fact, us," Johnson said. "We’re doing it for the right reasons at that point.”

3) The future of Volusia Forever and ECHO

At the regular council meeting, citizens flocked to speak in favor of placing the Volusia Forever and ECHO programs on the ballot, as both will sunset this year. 

Most of the council members agreed the conversation needed to continue, and Councilman Fred Lowry suggested holding a workshop with the past boards of Volusia Forever and ECHO. 

Denys said the program were created 20 years ago and she wants to make sure they are suitable for today's needs. There may be a way to include water quality and infrastructure projects into them as well. 

“There’s clearly a trend that we have to update the meaning of [ECHO] but I think it’s a great tool, and clearly our citizens want us to revisit that," Denys said.

Kelley brought up bundling Volusia Forever and ECHO into a one-cent sales tax, to be active for 12 years, but the council wasn't on board with that idea. Later, on Monday, Jan. 13, Kelley spoke about bundling the programs again at the Elected Officials Roundtable meeting. 

4) Affordable housing

Another issue slated for its own workshop is affordable housing. Wheeler suggested the group hold one in conjunction with the county's Affordable Housing Advisory Committee as a starting off point.

Kelley agreed.

“We have really engaged people on that board that really want to be involved and doing more than just being a rubber stamp for government grants," he said.

He spoke about other cities' initiatives in bringing in affordable housing, such as the tiny home community for transitioning homeless in Austin, Texas. The county is also plagued, like everywhere else, by things they can't control, he added. Volusia can't control construction costs, and Kelley said when you add that in conjunction with impact fees and permit fees, a home that would've cost $100,000 is no longer affordable.

County Councilwoman Heather Post said affordable housing is a national conversation, and that they don't have to "reinvent the wheel." They can research and see where programs are working and why,  especially in regards to bringing affordable housing to the working class. 

Denys said they should hold a meeting with representatives from all 16 cities to talk about affordable housing.

"There’s all sorts of opportunities," Denys said. "We can’t keep doing it the way we’ve done it because we’re not doing it."

5) Pay to park

Should people have to pay for beach parking? Four council members think it should be looked at. Wheeler, Post and Girtman said they weren't ready for the conversation yet.

Kelley and Johnson brought the topic to the workshop, with Kelley saying that this was discussed a couple years ago due to complaints of people not being able to find parking in county parks, such as the Andy Romano Beachfront Park in Ormond Beach. 

Recktenwald said the county hasn't enforced a lot of its rules for these parks either, such as no overnight parking and trailers taking up more than one space. 

“I support pay to park because I think that everything we’re talking about here, will fix itself," Denys said.

Post said you should be able to be poor and go to the beach, and that she didn't see how making people pay to park would solve the issue of a lack of parking. 

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