Last Updated: 5:41 p.m.
For months, nearly half the 60-some employees who work out of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s Operations Center have been complaining of symptoms typically related to sick building syndrome. Twenty-five of them filed workers’ compensation claims. A 26th did so today. Two have gone on family leave. The doctor for one of them said the employee should not step foot back into the building.
Today, Sheriff Rick Staly, calling the building “an albatross to the efficient and effective operation of the Sheriff’s Office,” demanded in a five-page letter to the county administrator that immediate provisions be made to provide “suitable space to house my affected operations and concerned employees.”
The letter places the responsibility for maintaining a safe environmental setting for employees squarely on the county, and puts the county on notice against using legalist or or other maneuvers to delay addressing employees’ concerns: “In my opinion, this is not about what the law requires to be done, or protection from litigation or who must prove what for a successful claim, but instead it is about doing what is right for my employees,” Staly wrote County Administrator Craig Coffey.
The letter also points to a decisive turn in the response by the sheriff and his administration. When the problems first emerged last year, the sheriff’s administration gave the county’s findings and approach the benefit of the doubt, which also meant guarded skepticism about believing that there was a widespread rather than a contained problem. With few exceptions, employees were reluctant to press the issue if they developed problems, the message from the administration being less than receptive. That changed in the past several weeks as employees’ medical issues became difficult to ignore and the employees’ union documented a more widespread and persistent problem than initially reported.
By law, county government is responsible for providing space for all the sheriff’s needs. The county bought the old Memorial Hospital building in Bunnell in 2013, a controversial decision then for several reasons, among them the cost ($1.23 million), the putrefied condition of the building, the secretive way the administration initiated the deal, and then-Commissioner Barbara Revels’s cozy ties with one of the sellers, which led to a huge ethics fine.
After the county spent more than $5 million rebuilding the structure, the Sheriff’s Office moved in by the end of 2015, when all issues seemed to have settled. They hadn’t. Two years later, employees were developing health problems and asking to work elsewhere. Four were initially affected, and were moved to the old jail offices. They were then told to return when the county ostensibly gave the all-clear. (Staly’s letter to employees puts the responsibility for ordering the employees back into the building on Jack Bisland, his undersheriff, although it’s unlikely that such a decision would have been made without approval from Staly.)
The county cleared the way after $65,000 worth of work was done to clean up mold and vents and environmental reports in March and April by two companies concluded that the air was safe. (See the report by H2H Indoor Air here, and by EMSL Analytical here, and the findings of the Flagler Department of Health here.) As soon as two of the employees returned (another was on family leave), the employees developed problems again. Then more did so.
“The subsequent response from the County was slow and not acceptable,” Staly wrote in a letter to his employees, also dated today, explaining what steps he was demanding of the county and steps he would take himself, and to calm any fears among employees–fears that were becoming more evident in recent weeks–that there would be any retaliation if they voiced their concerns. “You will not be punished nor suffer retaliation for bringing forth concerns for your health and safety,” Staly told the employees. “Remember, we are in this together, we all inherited this building together and my office is here too so I have just as much at stake as you do.”
The sheriff’s two letters reflect a sense of patience running out. After initially going along with the county’s conclusion that the problem was settled, Staly over time has become increasingly convinced that at least portions of the building are unsafe because of mold and other issues that still affect the air. He’s given the county seven months to resolve the matter. In a further indication of fraying confidence in the county’s willingness to solve the issue, Staly is hiring an independent physician, Stanley Haimes, an expert in sick-building syndrome, to provide analysis independent of the county’s hired experts.
And from the employees’ perspective? “They’re happy to hear that the sheriff is finally–I don’t want to say taking their side, but open to the idea that the building is a problem,” Joe Costello, a detective and a veteran at the agency who’s in his 33 year in policing, said. He’s also among the employees affected: he’s been working out of his car. “It’s not the employees, it’s not in their head, the building is their problem. I don’t know how you remediate it. I don’t know if you can. Who knows what’s in the ground, who knows what’s in the walls?”
If anything, Costello suggested the letter doesn’t go far enough to acknowledge the problem and not only reassure employees, but welcome them back. The sheriff did not address the exterior of the building for example. “The Sheriff talks about the Operations Center, but there’s no mention of the training facility yet and no reports of any asbestos at this point. And according to Chief Strobridge, they were still waiting for a report from the county. I can tell you that arrangements haven’t been made for the employees that I’m aware of and I don’t think that anybody has reached out to Annie Conrad to say, you know what Annie, you were right, apparently there is something going on with the building and you were right all along, and apparently she is going back to patrol if and when she does come back.”
Conrad, who last week was named CrimeStoppers’ Law Enforcement Officer of the Year, is among the more seriously affected employees. She’s one of the employees on family medical leave. She’s been a detective–and officially remains so–but was on notice that upon her return she would be sent back to road patrol. The more embracing response would be more explicitly to “reach out” to such employees and others affected, Costello said.
“Ultimately this is what the employees have been looking for the whole time: Let’s fix the problem,” Costello said. “I think ultimately what’s going to constitute fixing the problem is tearing that building down and fixing the problem.”
Meanwhile, the sheriff and his staff have been conducting their own research, acknowledging that it’s more improvised than expert–but research that yielded concerning results about repurposed hospitals and work that wasn’t done in preparation of the old Memorial Hospital’s refurbishing in 2013. Staly described himself as “shocked” by the research’s findings.
“My concern is that this is a freight train going down the road and everybody is going to jump on the bandwagon, and where do we go?” Staly said in an interview this afternoon. There’s no building that’s 35,000 square feet in Bunnell and that could accommodate a temporary relocation. By law, the sheriff is required to have his base office in the county seat. The sheriff’s immediate request to the county: The county must test the soil on the east side of the building. If that’s clear, it should bring a triple-wide to set up there so employees in fear or concerned about health and safety can be relocated. He stopped short of saying that the entire building should be evacuated: the problems appear concentrated on the east side of the building, with the west side, where the administrative staff works, generating no complaints.
Employees who work in the operations center include investigative services, administration, finance, IT, training, public information, human resources, business services, homeland security, records, evidence and crime scene investigators. Patrol personnel work out of their vehicles, but frequently use the building to turn in evidence, train, meet with supervisors, and have twice-monthly briefings.
All those who filed workers’ compensation claims have seen their claims rejected–not by the sheriff, but by the carrier in accordance with Florida law, which places the burden of proof on employees and their employers to prove that the claim is justified and evidence-based. At this point, and despite a preponderance of apparent evidence, there appears to be enough lack of hard evidence to give the carrier an out. The sheriff, however, is convinced there is a problem, however anecdotal the evidence. “There’s something wrong with this building. I have no clue what it is,” he said. Staly was undersheriff during Jim Manfre’s administration when the county bought the building. He said he’d favored either demolishing the building and building new or building an operations center elsewhere.
“Although we continue to meet regarding the issues surrounding this building and you are moving forward with additional testing, I must demand quick and significant action be taken by the county to immediately ensure the safety of my employees,” Staly’s letter to Coffey reads. “his profession is dangerous enough from criminals. Employees should not have to live in fear of their workplace causing them long-term illnesses.”
Chief Mark Strobridge said a central issue regarding relocation, aside from the obvious lack of space, is cohesion: the sheriff doesn’t want various divisions’ effectiveness hampered by having different employees in different locations. “You have have a unified command structure and people working together or it’s going detrimental to the operation,” Strobridge said. Some of that cohesion broke down when employees were relocated to the old jail.
Costello, however, said moving employees to a triple-wide within sight of the Operations Center may not be enough: “I don’t think any employees that have these serious physical effects from the building even want to see the building in a psychological way because it’s just part of the tearing down of the employees, not only physically but mentally,” he said. “There’s no better opp for cohesion than when employees are dealing with something like this and they come together as a family and act as a family.”
Staly’s letter continued: “Employees should not have to live in fear of their workplace causing them long-term illnesses. Based on the fact that it has taken so long (seven months) just to get to this point I anticipate these additional studies, analysis and testing will take a significant amount of time. Then, if additional remediation is needed, or building replacement is recommended, we are months if not years away from a permanent solution. The last time we reassigned employees to other buildings resulted in significant disruptions to Sheriff’s Office operations.”
The letter, which appears in full below, suggests many discussions had been taking place between the sheriff’s administration and the county administration, but that results were not forthcoming on the county’s side.
Coffey in a text in early evening said he would be reading the sheriff’s letter this evening and discussing it with county staff in the morning.
Costello said people’s lives are at stake. “That’s the bottom line. You can’t put money before people’s lives. People matter.” Acknowledging the sheriff’s approach in today’s letters, he added: “We’re all hopeful that the county will recognize the same thing and do something about it.”