County Administrator Craig Coffey’s 11-year tenure wasn’t the only thing that ended this week. It now appears that the viability of the Sheriff’s Operations Center is over, too, whatever last week’s testing may yet reveal. The sheriff, the sheriff’s employee union and at least two county commissioners don’t see a way back into the building. Discussions have begun on finding an alternative, both in the short term and for a permanent operations center elsewhere.
County officials’ agendas will be full and feverish over the next few weeks. They meet twice Monday, at 9 a.m. to discuss how to fill the interim administrator’s post and to start the process of finding a new manager, and at 5 p.m. to discuss, among other things, creating a task force focused on the future of the operations center. Absent an unexpected reversal, that future will no longer be at 901 East Moody Boulevard.
Two hours before Wednesday’s special meeting of the commission, where Coffey’s resignation plan was accepted–his last day is Friday–Sheriff Rick Staly stood alongside Commissioner Joe Mullins and Joe Barile, a representative of the sheriff’s employees’ union, outside the operations center to talk to a few reporters about the fate of the building. None of the three saw a realistic, affordable way back into the building.
They also spoke about last week’s two-day testing, which uncovered old wood and old insulation the county said had been stripped, and extensive water intrusion in numerous spots at the base of the building. “I can’t trust anything in this building after that,” Barile said. “I mean, what else is in this building?”
Staly was equally skeptical. “I don’t see any way the county can ever convince me this is a safe building for my employees,” he said. Friday’s revelations took him over the edge, he said, echoing words by Commissioner Dave Sullivan, who said at a workshop earlier this week that he was done investing any more money in the operations center. Staly said even if a reconstruction plan was put together, it would be prohibitively expensive to accomplish all that must be done to satisfactorily set aside all concerns, and even then, “I don’t see how you can fix it and make it satisfactory where you can convince me this building is safe for my employees. I don’t think it’s possible.”
Ironically, today a contractor was scheduled to install air handling balancing equipment in the operations center, a project ordered and paid for by the county weeks ago.
This morning, Mike Scudiero, executive director of the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association, the employees’ union, issued a statement essentially firing the building as far as the employees are concerned: “In light of recent developments, and testing results conclusively demonstrating that the sheriff’s operations center remains an unsafe work environment, the PBA is demanding that the sheriff permanently abandon the building,” Scudiero said. In fact, the testing itself may have conclusively shown to those who witnessed it that the building is unsafe, but the testing results are not in yet: they’re still being analyzed.
Scudiero said the county “knowingly” put employees at risk in an unsafe environment, “ignoring real physical symptoms related to the operations center.” (To the end, Coffey has claimed the “jury is still out” on the building’s hazards.) Scudiero asked for “a new and safe environment” for sheriff’s employees, adequate testing and medical care for all employees claiming physical symptoms related to exposure to the operations center, and reimbursements for previous medical care costs, lost wages and legal costs.
Preliminary discussions have begun regarding the next-most crucial step: where to house the sheriff’s operations in the couple of years it will take to find a new location and build a new operations center.
Staly said there are three options currently.
The first is to consolidate all operations in the county courthouse. At the moment, operations are split between the courthouse and the sheriff’s old administrative building on Justice Lane, near the old jail. But the sheriff has trouble reaching his own commanders when he needs to, if he tries them on their cell phones from the courthouse, where reception is poor. There’s also the matter of imposing on the clerk of court, judges and other offices in the courthouse, and sense–or at least a concern–that the sheriff has overstayed his welcome there.
The second option is to rent “a slew of trailers,” in the sheriff’s words, and set up shop there. The question is where to place the trailers. He is adamantly opposed to placing them on the property of the current operations center. That option carries costs.
The third option is to set up the temporary operations center in the 20,000 square foot building Beutlich Development built on U.S. 1 and Otis Hunter Road in partnership with Flagler County’s economic development arm, and in an effort to attract new business and industry to the county. The building is privately owned and is the first of two identical buildings to be on that property. It’s currently a shell that may be built out to full functionality. The sheriff would have to pay rent to the owner.
Staly likes the readiness of the facility but is reluctant to fill a building intended to bring new business to the area with a government entity whose tax contributions would be limited to property taxes (by way of rent payments, which always account for property taxes). On the other hand, it would fill the building, spur the construction of the second building, and be a time-limited solution, giving the economic department time to recruit new tenants down the line.
“Of course our goal is always to try to bring the businesses in and we’ve got a couple of businesses looking at the site,” Helga van Eckert, director of the county’s economic development department, said today. But she said if the sheriff needed a building for his operations, “we would not be averse to that.” Van Eckert likened the scenario to that of Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston occupying part of a strip mall in Flagler Beach for one of her satellite offices.
County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien is also chairman of the county’s economic development advisory board. He’d heard about the possibility of using the 20,000 square foot building. “It’s way too early for me to think about that,” he said. “I still really need to know what’s going on with the last test and the suggested remediation, if any. I want to hear that first obviously, but I know we need to discuss a more permanent solution, and that’s what I think we need to do together with [Staly] and all the parties at the table.”
Like Staly, he said he would prefer to fill the building with a new business, but given the emergency for the sheriff, “it’s certainly an option,” if not necessarily the first option. The building, however, does match all the requirements: it’s well located, it’s in Bunnell (the sheriff’s office is required to be headquartered in the county seat, by law), it’s connected to essential services, and it has the necessary room.
Those issues will be handled by the task force about to be established, O’Brien said. “As soon as we get people assigned to that task force, it needs to move fast,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start to line up options,” with assosiated costs and how long those costs can be sustained. “Quite frankly that’s something I asked Mr Coffey to start doing months ago. If he did it internally, he didn’t share it with me.”