By Hannah Bleau | firstname.lastname@example.org
While the nation prepares for what’s expected to be a very controversial midterm election, St. Augustine is facing local debates of its own.
Millennials have become central to the debate. Young voters are thought to be politically active during presidential election years, but tend to fall through the cracks during the off years.
“I think that young people are disinterested in voting in general because there is a sense of futility in the whole process,” Flagler student Christopher Meier said. “You have to choose between not only the lesser of two evils, but two evils who don’t care about you.”
Meier also feels frustrated about the lack of representation.
“From local elections, to national, when you aren’t being represented, when your voice isn’t heard, what incentive do you have to care?” Meier said.
When it comes to the mayor’s race, where Nancy Shaver is challenging incumbent Mayor Joseph Boles, Flagler College seems to be a key player in the election.
The two candidates seem split on Flagler’s role in the community. While both agree Flagler is an essential and beneficial tenet of the St. Augustine community, some locals fear Flagler is abusing power, buying up property and changing downtown St. Augustine into a “college town.”
As a non-profit organization, Flagler College is not required to pay property taxes. In the fiscal year 2011, Flagler College grossed over, $56 million according Flagler’s tax documents on propublica. Non-profits make up roughly 40 percent of property in St. Augustine, and Flagler College owns 41 pieces of property ($131 million worth) but only paid out $170,000 in assessment fees because of their non-profit tax-exempt status. According to Shaver, if Flagler were to pay the full amount, they would be paying in nearly $1 million.
Shaver believes that Flagler College and the community could reach a voluntary agreement where Flagler would pay a lesser amount in lieu of taxes.
“Federal law makes it clear that non-profit institutions are exempt from taxes, but this voluntary negotiated option helps everyone contribute to the health and future of St. Augustine. As mayor I look forward to an honest dialogue on the subject,” Shaver said.
Boles, on the other hand, says St. Augustine has never been in better shape financially, and he contends that the college provides the city with irreplaceable benefits.
“Flagler College is our City’s largest preservationist of historic structures. The College’s partnership with the City (and community) with the use of the Auditorium, Ringhaver Center, Markland House and the Solarium is an amazing benefit to us all … I see no reason to try and squeeze more money out of our college and the other non-profits, and I will never support such a proposal.”
Both candidates say locals want more fluidity, transparency and communication when it comes to the city governance. Boles says social media will help them get there.
“I want the nation’s oldest city to be on the forefront – not lagging behind new technology,” Boles said.
Shaver also spoke about more involvement and social media use.
“It means for me, monthly Citizen Coffees, attending neighborhood associations, merchant meetings, student forums, having a website that works, using social media,” Shaver said. “It also means not just a Human Rights ordinance, but an inclusive approach to every City activity. It means having a City staff that represent the diversity of our community.”
These issues seem to fall flat for most students, but the Flagler community’s participation could make a tremendous impact on the mayoral race. Boles hopes for 60 percent turnout (5,000 to 6,000 voters). With the Flagler student body reaching near 2,000, one can see the enormous impact student voters could potentially have. Both candidates say it’s crucial for students to get involved.
“When you bring as much to the table as Flagler College, your students need to be involved as a voting block to ensure the balance needed to move us in a direction ‘together,’” Boles said. “The community has welcomed the college to our City and we all have accommodations to make for us all to be winners in the quality of life arena. You students who live in St. Augustine need have a seat at that table and that means voting for your leaders.”
“Young people represent the future — and today’s leaders and decisions will affect them for a long time,” Shaver said. “Democracy is complicated, and often messy and is the soul of our country — so participation is a responsibility as well as a right. As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Lethargy is the forerunner of death to the public liberty.’ We all remain free as long as we remember our votes are our voice.”
But while leaders stress the importance of millennial participation, locals remain skeptical of an overwhelming student turnout.
“I think the younger demographic is disinterested in the local elections mainly because people haven’t changed their residency to St. Augustine,” Flagler student Cooper Harrison said. “Only a small percentage of people that go to Flagler are local, and an even smaller group cares enough to change residencies.”
Some students believe an unwelcoming community atmosphere is keeping local students from the ballot box.
“Personally, I think that students are disinterested in local elections because they do not feel part of the community,” Flagler student Donn Garby said. “As a student, I do not feel welcome in the Saint Augustine community. If locals made us feel like we were more part of the St. Augustine community then I would have no doubt that we would be more interested in the local politics and how they affect us.”
The general election will be held Nov. 4.