The next city election is five months away. Candidates don’t even formally sign up to run until November.
But attack ads already are in the mail.
An unregistered group called Protect Gardens Taxpayers is taking shots at city Councilmember Carl Woods.
But unlike most public advocacy groups, this one has a clearly identified sponsor — veteran campaign consultant Randy Nielsen.
Nielsen, an expert in the arcane rules of campaign finance in Florida, set up Protect Gardens Taxpayers as “an all-volunteer, grassroots organization dedicated to fair and reasonable taxation.”
Whether he alone footed the bill may never be known since the group, which launched the flyers after the city’s first budget vote Sept. 8, is required to register and publicly disclose contributors only if it advertises within 30 days of the March 8 election.
“This is a democracy,” said Nielsen, who has often run campaigns in Gardens, most recently for Woods’ 2019 opponent Howard Rosenkranz. “People can actually leaflet and talk about the issues they care about.”
And for Nielsen, a longtime advocate for Republican causes, a major issue is taxation.
3-2 vote in favor of higher tax rate
The ads, two mailers sent out about a week apart, blast Woods for his Sept. 8 vote to hold the tax rate steady at $5.55 per $1,000 of valuation, even though two council members, Mark Marciano and Marcie Tinsley, argued to lower the tax rate by 5 cents.
“City Councilman Carl Woods turned his back on hardworking taxpayers with his swing vote pushing for higher property taxes and bigger government,” one ad said. “That’s just wrong.”
Woods rejects the premise.
“Why would people (behind the ads) mislead the citizens of Palm Beach Gardens on something that’s absolutely untrue?” he asked, arguing that keeping the tax rate flat while property values rise does not amount to a tax increase. “Strong property values are not a negative thing. I’ve never supported a millage increase and I never plan on it.”
In fact, the ads boomeranged in his favor, Woods said, because he responded to about 40 people who called him to complain and explained his position.
“They ended up being the nicest people,” Woods said. “I had to clean up Randy’s mess. And set the record straight.”
Pad reserves or let residents keep the cash?
Nielsen crafted the ads without the words “tax hike” to avoid a debate over the term but instead wrote that even with a flat tax rate the city property tax collections rose 41 percent since 2016, a figure Woods disputed.
During that time, the tax rate remained unchanged at $5.55 and the city annexed three communities on west Northlake Boulevard and had substantial new construction, all of which contributed to the rise in property tax collections.
Nielsen criticized the city for maintaining large reserve accounts despite the constant rise in tax collections.
“To me, it was more about philosophy than it was about the amount,” he said. “It sends a message to the taxpayers when they have to take every nickel off the table to put into a reserve account.”
Republican singles out Republican
He said he singled out Woods because, even though the board seat is nonpartisan, Woods is a Republican, while the other two council members who supported the $5.55 rate, Mayor Rachelle Litt and Vice Mayor Chelsea Reed, are Democrats. Woods also is the only one of the three up for reelection in March.
“Like it or not, Carl is a Republican, he ran as a conservative,” said Nielsen, who lives in Palm Beach Gardens and has run campaigns for County Commissioner Maria Marino, a Republican, and former Councilmember Eric Jablin, a Democrat. “You think he would side with taxpayers. In this case, I don’t think he did.”
Woods, a former police officer, said he had the taxpayers’ best interests in mind, warning that a cut in the tax rate now would result in an increase later.
“Why would another Republican throw out something so fake?” Woods asked. “Why would he attack me when I wasn’t the swing vote in anything?”
Meanwhile, Woods’ potential opponent, newcomer Eric Bruns, said he had nothing to do with the ads. Bruns, a Democrat, has filed papers to allow him to start raising money for the March 8 election but most candidates can’t formally sign up to run until the second half of November.
Initial campaign finance disclosure reports for August show Bruns collected $100 and Woods has $14,800. The next reports are due Oct. 12.
Woods, who raised $56,000 in 2019, is running after receiving a city attorney’s opinion that his first term in 2016, shortened by four months because of an election dispute, did not count as a full term under the city’s term limit rules. He will have served just short of six years.
Nielsen identified himself and provided a phone number on the Protect Gardens Taxpayers’ website, inviting supporters to call.
“We pledge to hold local elected officials accountable by informing residents about government spending and taxation policies,” he wrote. He would not say who else supported the effort.
He said the ads have cost less than five figures so far and promised more, especially in the pre-election period before donors must be disclosed.
“He (Woods) hasn’t seen the last of it,” Nielsen said.
© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.