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Bunnell’s Challenges: Lawsuits, Layoffs, Deficits, and That $900,000 Police Department

| July 6, 2011

One of the ironies of the Bunnell city government is that it no longer has its own city hall. And it's barely holding on to its police force. (© FlaglerLive)

The Bunnell city government headed into this summer’s budget season facing a $900,000 deficit–which coincides with the precise cost of the city’s police department–and the potential loss of a $1.3 million state contract that would have a devastating effect on the city’s $9.5 million budget.

The city has been securing the $1.3 million contract from the Florida Department of Transportation to take care of all state roads within the city’s jurisdiction. It pays many salaries in the public works department and buys equipment the city would not afford on its own. It’s good through December. But it has to be renegotiated.

“We’ve had the contract I believe going on three or four years and it’s up for renewal, so we have to bid for it,” Armando Martinez, the Bunnell city manager, said. “Nothing is guaranteed. We’re going to bid for it and all the ratings that we’ve got are good, but what happens is when you budget, I’m not going to budget on something I don’t have, so I have to budget the city as if I’m not going to get the contract.”

When the Bunnell City Commission takes on its 2011-12 budget later this month, it will have to choose from several options Martinez will present, among them further cost cuts and an increase in the property tax rate, already the highest of any county jurisdiction except the school board. Bunnell’s tax rate is $6.0544 per $1,000 in taxable value. Like Palm Coast, Bunnell did not raise its property tax last year. But it did so by going into its reserves. It’s unlikely that either city will be able to keep the property tax level for another year.

Bunnell’s city commissioners notably opted to double their salaries last year, to $9,600 per commissioner per year, the same salary council members in Palm Coast, a city with 25 times Bunnell’s population, draw.

The city administration isn’t waiting for the new budget year to make cuts. The third-highest ranked officer in the Bunnell Police Department, Sgt. David Barbee, was abruptly fired last month, ostensibly as a cost-saving measure. He happened to be on workman’s compensation and was his union’s representative with the city. He was also among those whose testimony to the State Attorney unraveled a series of embarrassing irregularities, improprieties and criminal behavior inside the department. That investigation had also relied on the testimony of another Sergeant, Frank Gamarra. He was fired last year, soon after the report became public.

Gamarra is now suing the city, saying he was fired for blowing the whistle. He rejects the city’s argument that the lay-off was financially motivated, and charges that the city held on to Barbee, a “less qualified” officer (according to Gamarra’s complaint), while Gamarra had twice been officer of the year in Bunnell.

“Barbee was placed on probation,” Gamarra said of his tenure at the department. “Some of his tasks had to be given to me because he couldn’t handle them. I’m also a veteran, no veteran preference was taken in consideration.”

Barbee’s lay-off could be a tactical move on the city’s part, disarming a central point in Gamarra’s lawsuit.

“I have no comment on the Gamarra lawsuit,” Martinez said. “The only thing that was kind of interesting is that I read in the newspaper that Mr. Gamarra claimed that he was fired as a result of testifying, but in reality of the two, of Sgt. Barbee and Mr. Gamarra, in my opinion Sgt. Barbee’s testimony was more severe and more damaging than Mr. Gamarra’s.”

Yet now both have lost their job.

“Yeah but this has nothing to do with it,” Martinez said. “You know we’ve said it all along, it’s unfortunate the hardest thing that you have to do is let anybody go, because it affects people’s families. But sometimes you have to make the hard decisions.”

The city also fired its fire marshal-code enforcement officer as a cost-saving measure. Between those two positions, the city is saving $20,000 this year and $78,000 next year. Overall, Martinez said, the city has so far amassed $380,000 in cuts, including savings in its health insurance plan and savings from the 3 percent that employees, rather than the city, now have to contribute to their retirement fund. But it still leaves a considerable gap.

Bunnell’s difficulties this year aren’t much different from those faced by other local governments. They’re just steeper. Revenue drops or the loss of a lucrative contract have disproportionate effects on a smaller city–and one that, for now, can’t afford its own offices: it’s living off the office-space welfare of the county administration, rent-free, a lingering arrangement that has some county commissioners, including Commission Chairman Alan Peterson, chafing.

And some of the cost-saving measures, such as eliminating the sergeants in the police department and a decision to end providing certain water services to 10 percent of Bunnell’s residents, are backfiring in lawsuits. In April, Palm Terrace Community sued the city when Bunnell decided to end billing its 120 homes individually for water, instead building a single meter for the whole community and sending the community manager a single bill. It’s Bunnell’s right to change the method, but the community is disputing the end of a 25-year custom that had been verbally agreed to between the city and the community when it was annexed.

Other cost-saving measures may be on the table again. Among them: eliminating the police department. That was considered last year at City Commissioner Elbert Tucker’s request. The proposal didn’t go far. It’s not likely to go far this year, even though Tucker appeared to have a new ally on the commission in John Rogers, who had favored turning over the city’s policing to the sheriff’s office last year. He was cooler to the idea this year, though the numbers are more dire. “I’m not totally convinced that we should do that,” Rogers said on Wednesday. “I’ll have to look at the numbers.”

Arthur Jones, the Bunnell Police Chief, went on a three-week vacation, raising speculation that he may have been on his way out. Martinez dispelled the notion, saying Jones would be back. Martinez, who was Bunnell’s police chief before he became its manager, is not about to recommend abolishing the department.

“There’s pros and cons to both, OK?” Martinez said. “I think Don Fleming does a tremendous job, and I think that the sheriff’s department does a tremendous job, OK? The only thing is, most major cities–and although we’re a small town now, we have the potential of being the next 800-pound gorilla in the county, and let’s face it, when the economy was working, this was the fastest-growing county in the United States. Now, take that into consideration along with the fact that, well, the city of Bunnell probably is going to be more enticing for development because of the fact that we have fast permitting, we’ve done some things that put a moratorium on impact fees. When the economy turns around, this city is going to grow, and I can tell you, a big identifier to most cities has to do with their police department, and a lot of cities don’t want to lose it.”

Martinez added: “Once you take a police department away, it’s just that much harder to start it up again because of all the start-up costs, so it’s a hard decision to make. I could tell you that as far as some of the men and women that we have in the police department, I know it hasn’t been a banner year, and I am very disappointed and kind of like a little frustrated by some of the things that have happened, but I don’t think that maybe because of the actions of a few, the rest should be judged. I think that there’s a lot of good people within the Bunnell Police Department. Every day they come in and try to give 100 percent, and I think that they do identify with the community, so I believe that that one-on-one connectivity with their police department is also something that’s probably into consideration. But ultimately there’s pros and cons to both sides.”

The bottom line, Martinez said, will be in his options to the commission come budget time next week. A proposed tax increase will be among the options. “It will ultimately be their decision,” Martinez said. “But remember, no millage increase means using more reserves.”

And those reserves, now at $600,000, are decreasing, too.

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27 Responses for “Bunnell’s Challenges: Lawsuits, Layoffs, Deficits, and That $900,000 Police Department”

  1. Mrs. Jane Q. Public says:

    Bunnell is what you get when you combine a disengaged public, clueless Commissioners, and an inept administration. Budget cuts are oh so convenient. The firing of the code enforcement officer-fire marshal had little to do with budget cutbacks and more to do with him challenging a couple overinflated egos well entrenched in the politics of the Town. Yes, it is sad to see another person’s life turned upside down for going to work and challenging others to do the right thing but that is how it works in this Town. You either keep quiet and play small town politics or you are out. Keep it coming, Flagler Live. If you shed enough light on this little town, eventually the truths will come out.

  2. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Time for the county to take over police, fire and sanitation.

  3. BigRedneckfromBunnell says:

    “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thomas Jefferson

    I am not completely sure whether Flagler County should take over the daily policing of Bunnell but the above quote is a true and effective description of the role Martinez plays and what will have to be done (not literally) to eradicate Bunnell’s 900,000 Police Department problems.

  4. Surprised says:

    When is the Mayor gonna wake up and fire the city manager? How many lawsuits do we have under his term? She keeps letting him wear out the city car, and burn up the city’s gas driving back and forth from south fl. Oh When he does show up and come to work? About half the time. Its just a matter of time before more lawsuits hit this town.

  5. just a citizen says:

    I don’t think the issue here is the integrity of the personnel of the Police department…. There are bad apples in every department, yes including the Sheriff’s office… It’s just with fact that it is a much smaller department, and things are more glaring… just a short while ago deputy was found stealing money out of evidence… and there are more…..Flagler Beach officer had a DUI… and so on…so just like in any profession there are greedy dishonest people…
    The problem with Bunnell is they want a Police Department…but don’t really know how it should be run one. This is not like it was 25 years ago when you could do things by the seat of your pants…The department didn’t grow and advance like other agencies. This is the 21st century and the City runs the department like its 1980…you can’t do it. You can’t expect to draw quality people when you do things half-assed.
    The City Officials…bear this burden, if everyone remembers…they Sherriff’s office gave them a figure of $850,000.00 last year to provide the same road patrol coverage that existed in the City then, and still does today (2 officer’s) on duty. In addition they would assign an investigator dedicated to Bunnell, and ALL of the Sheriff’s resources, SWAT, Narcotics, K9, etc etc etc…….. at a savings over $150,000.00. The City Commissioners paraded a few people, mostly from Palm Coast, saying how the City needs the police department, The Commissioners make a decision to keep the Department…based on what!!! Tugs of the heart????
    They would have gotten more service for less money…..sooooo do the math. If they would have done that last year…they would be $100,000 in the black….. It just proves what I said back then…they are idiots..That’s why the City is in the state it’s in pure n simple. As always I’m shaking my head

  6. Edward says:

    ” we have the potential of being the next 800-pound gorilla in the county”. Are you bloody kidding me? It took 30 years to get a second traffic light! The only significant things to happen here is a Dollar General, an Advance Auto part store and strip malls that houses a business for three months before succumbing to the weak economy of this County. The BEST thing to have happened to this County was the city of Palm Coast which keeps this place floating.
    Bunnell isn’t the Phoenix, it’s the ashes the Phoenix arose from. Martinez is justifying his paycheck by becoming a “pep-rally leader”.

  7. Edward says:

    …I forgot. We just got a Wendys

  8. CoysBoy says:

    When our Mayor wakes up, it ain’t gonna be pretty. I remember Paulette and I remember Coy….both fine southern examples…..however if you ever made either of them angry you’d get a fine example of “madder than a wet hen” Catherine is being charmed by the snake charmer but when he looses her glance and she sees what we all see…..LOOK OUT! Now, we will need a Saxon wrecker (out of rotation) to get Jenni’s head out of her arse because that’s all Jenni does is play follow the leader with Catherine! That, sadly, is to our benefit because Jenni doesn’t have the sense the good Lord gave a goose!

  9. tax payer says:

    Again consolidation of services is the answer , a lot of the Fl counties are combining services and running them more efficient, the cities just need to stop having these big egos when they know the tax payers would save money and benefit on service,

  10. Larry says:

    I agree with the other posts. Bunnell should dissolve and its services should be consolidated into the County.

    As far a 800 pound gorilla??? Yeah right, I don’t care how fast I can pull a permit in Bunnell. The town is one of the ugliest on the east coast of Florida, the water is nasty yet some of the the most expensive in the area, and its tax rate is too high for the low quality service provided. Worse yet, they just fired their only code enforcement officer? I can hardly keep my eyes open as I drive through that part of the County as it is. Who exactly is calling the shots over there? This town was never pretty but it sure does seem to get uglier every day.

  11. Popo3984 says:

    The Bunnell Pd should stay they have some of the most dedicated officers in the county And is also the oldest law enforcement agency in the county all of you that want it dissolved should be ashamed of yourselfs just as mr Tucker should who obviously has a hidden hatred for law enforcement officers and just so you know at the commission meeting it was Bunnell residents so get lost Bunnell Pd is not going anywhere

  12. just a citizen says:

    Hate to ruin your day Poopoo, although I agree that the department has good officers, I beg to differ with you on the Commission meeting…the only 2 vocal Bunnell citizens, other than the lame brains, (excluding Mr. Tucker), sitting on dais, wanted the Sheriff’s office to take over, all the other’s, which included the chief’s wife, were from Palm Coast. If anyone doubts that, request the detailed minutes from that meeting. If you’re going to post a rebuttal and express your opinion then at least have the facts straight. Bottom line, from a budgetary standpoint, which is what we are talking about here, we wouldn’t be in this fix if the right decision was made last October and we would be getting better service.

  13. Wake up Bunnell says:

    WAKE UP BUNNELL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!……..What is it going to take to make the Bunnell commission and its citizen’s to stand up and take control of their city. Martinez is running this city into the ground and you’re all just standing by and watching it happen. It’s sad that during the meeting when the Sheriff’s Office presented the city with an offer to take over police services, only two Bunnell citizens voiced their opinion and the rest were Chief Jones’s friends from palm coast. The only commissioner’s that seem to have any brains is Tucker and Rogers. Hopefully their budget conscious way of thinking will rub off on the rest of Bunnell’s leaders. Before any more decisions are made the commission needs to fire Martinez. Why do you think he was run out of Miami and forced to work at the Bunnell PD. He’s a crook and a scam artist and he’s clearly all about himself. He thought he could hide from his past in a small backwoods town but he was obviously wrong. If you don’t believe me just Google him. Watch your back officer’s, he’s fired two of you since they’ve testified against his friends so don’t be surprised when it happens to someone else. Why weren’t the City’s newest officers “laid off” and the two sergeants given the opportunity to drop rank and keep their jobs? I’ve worked in Flagler County for 10+ years and I’ve seen this city go from bad to worse. The city needs to turns over all its services to a more capable Flagler County.

  14. PJ says:

    Everyone is complaining now. Where were you all when the work required to repair and maintain the city was just a temp fix. Here the utilities dept. is now maintaining and really fixing a repair. Your city could not pump more than 500 gal per minute without blowing a main. Under this utilities dept. you now get 1000 gallons per minute. This helps the fire dept put out fires quickly. The quality of the water is safe to drink and taste is improving everyday likely because your now not blowing water mains weekly.

    The Police make about 125% more arrest. than the county. Not taking away from the county Police who do a great job but this because of a local presence and better moral. 125% arrest, and most are outt of towners.

    The city has improved it just feels uneasy with this economy. Have faith in your Commission these folks really care about Bunnell. The Staff in the city are hard working and seem ti try to improve services. If you have something to say go to the public meetings.

  15. palmcoaster says:

    As a Flagler County and Palm Coast resident at this point I would not mind to pay $20 more or so, on my taxes, to prevent any firing of our public employees specially police, firefighters and maintenance services. We have enough unemployed, just use some compassion! Just cut the fat on capital projects that can wait for better times, in administrative and professional government salaries, get less gouging group healthcare contracts….no less than 3 bids! Pass any government contract thru the magnifying glass and ask for better rates. Stop using gouging unneeded consultants paid fortunes over resolving nothing! Use the professionals we already have in the payroll and in house. Do all the above being brave and ignoring the upset Elite and their influences lashing out and swearing to unseat you in the next election. Do we want to reduce our America and our services to the this?:

  16. palmcoaster says:

    Hey Wake up Bunnell …”more capable Flagler County?”are you kidding me..? After “all the bonds that we are still paying” for: 1) the pretentious Taj-Mahal and 2) the King Hammond’s palace, 3) the oversized Ginn only, hangar, 4) the Cakes Across Darby facility etc. Lets do not forget the way that over $24,000 hard earned taxpayers funds were wasted to pay the Enterprise “consultant” to reinvent the never to be filled hole in the water called “Economic Development” Are you kidding me? Now we even have Enterprise sneaking its paws inside the TDC pie if you want to find out how deep, go to their next quarterly breakfast and ask Milissa the speaker and the elite to her side high paid Peggy Heiser that though sustained by these county taxpayers funds does not even reside in Flagler..typical outsourcing encouraged by COC Flagler. This is where the fat has to be cut and not in really needed services employees, that we are really paying for instead of the useless elite.

  17. Mrs. Jane Q. Public says:

    It is not a matter of having compassion. Laying off staff in the name of “budget cuts” is a complete facade. These administrators are only interested in playing politics in an effort to protect their own butts from being fired. The firings made were nothing more than politically motivated from within the upper administrative levels. If the commissioners really want to make a difference, they would start by cutting from the top tiers and getting more professional administrators. If would save tax payers money in the end. As Bunnell is learning, ineptitude can be very expensive.

  18. BigRedneckfromBunnell says:

    If the mayor doesn’t hurry up and wake up and fire Martinez….as soon as Jones is ready to retire look for Martinez to bring another “Stubbs” up from Miami Vice to be his trusty sidekick!

  19. Merrill says:

    There is nothing here about which to be concerned! If Bunnell leadership has the time, effort, energy and attention to debate a Day of Prayer action in the city commission (see, then surely they have what it takes to solve all these problems!

  20. bunnell boy says:

    I think the best thing for the city of bunnell would be for martinez and jones to car pool one way back to miami.Under this city manager it seems when you get thrown out of your job some place else in qualifies you for a high paying job with the city.I would be willing to bet martinez was glued to the tv watching the casey anthony trial, so if Mr.baez lost the trial he could offer him the job as the city attorney.

  21. Poor Bunnell says:

    Merrill…………. If you truly believe that then you’re as foolish as the city commissioners that are entrusting Martinez with the city’s future. If these same leaders stay in Bunnell you and all the future ex city employees can pray during the time between the unemployment office and labor finders. Prayer isn’t going to put food on the table and clothes on their children’s back. These people need jobs and an income. The city commission needs to do their JOB and that is making decisions with the city’s best interest in mind. Clearly their first decision should be to send Martinez packing and Jones should be a close second. Bunnell boy had a great idea to send them off together.

  22. Rob says:

    On the Employ Florida job search web site there are two contract positions posted today July 8 by the City of Bunnell.

    1. Code Enforcement Inspector (contract)
    2. Fire Inspector (contract)

    Are these contract positions really open positions or are the postings a formality to meet legal requirements?

    • FlaglerLive says:

      In our interview with Armando Martinez he had said that the administration was considering contracting out the work, which had been done by the one person (combining both duties) who was fired/laid off last month.

  23. Popo3984 says:

    Well hate to break it to all of you anti law enforcement folks bpd ain’t going anywhere ha

  24. The Piranha says:

    Flagler Live, could you re-post “his contract” from your January 8, 2011 (Bunnell;s Armando Martinez: Cop or City Manager? Constitution Says Choose One) for those who might have missed that nugget. Tell me, is the ass wagging the dog here or is that a normal contract for such a small populated city? If I didn’t know any better, (and I don’t) and lived in a small populated town like Bunnell where under his administration, 2/3 of the cops were either fired, layed off, forced resignation, quit and lest we forget arrested, I’d be asking myself if there was something more (Miami) fishy maybe going on. Just wondering…

    [The story and links are available here, the particular contract is here.]

  25. CoysBoy says:

    I heard the former Code Enforcement Officer works for Jimmy Flynt now….it’s Jimmy’s way of saying thank you for letting him break the law and park all his wreckers on city property across the street from his house all these years unpunished. smh

  26. Sara says:

    CoysBoy, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The code enforcement officer that was let go was just a puppet on a string. He didn’t actually have any say on who or how to enforce the code. The person who has been pulling the strings all along is a small rat-like man who prefers to hide in shadows and have others take the heat for his decisions. Code enforcement has become a political football in Bunnell and things are heating up now that the town is starting to show the effects of years of poor management. Blaming the code enforcement officer and getting rid of him was an easy way to avoid personal accountability for code enforcement decisions. Unfortunately, the City lost another good employee and has kept the rat.

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