They sat alongside each other, in front of the County Commission: Sheriff Rick Staly, Interim County Administrator Jerry Cameron, and Clerk of Court Tom Bexley, as Mark Strobridge, the sheriff’s right hand, presented options to house law enforcement operations for the next year or two, as the county figures out what to do with the evacuated Sheriff’s Operations Center.
One of the options was to do a little more of what’s being done now: keep much of the sheriff’s administrative and other operations at the county courthouse, the 135,000-square-foot, four-story building that cost $45 million when completed 12 years ago, when it was purposefully build with lots of extra room and the county had its eye on future growth. It so happened that the courthouse was finished just as the housing bubble burst, bringing local growth to a crawl for many years. That’s what’s enabled the sheriff to use office space there, in an accommodation with the clerk of court.
The option Strobridge was presenting would cost only a few thousand dollars and would be the most cost-efficient, he said, compared to two other options, one of which was presented as a non-started (a collection of trailers to be lined on property in front of the Government Services Building, but where such things as weapons or evidence could not be securely stored. Another, more viable option would be for the sheriff to occupy a new, 20,000 square foot building off U.S. 1 build by a private developer, with county government subsidies, as a way to attract new business to the area. But that would cost $240,000 a year, and another $80,000 to prepare the building for occupancy by a law enforcement agency.
As county commissioners audibly warmed to the courthouse option, Bexley much more audibly objected, saying he did not want an open-ended commitment that would essentially yield the first floor of the courthouse to the sheriff’s operations. At the time, Cameron had barely been hired the county’s interim manager. Commissioners sat back. Staly proposed further negotiations, giving Cameron a chance to lead the way–and a 15-day deadline.
The deadline has come and gone. There’s been no breakthrough. There’s no new proposal. There’s no end game. When the County Commission meets this evening at 5 p.m., there’s no agenda item on the courthouse, and no special meeting scheduled to discuss it any time soon. That could change, of course. A county commissioner could bring up the issue in his portion of the meeting this evening, and even make a motion toward a certain end. But commissioners had tasked Cameron with shuttling between Staly and Bexley as their Kissinger, and for now, there’s no agreement.
“It was supposed to have been a week and a half ago,” Staly said last week. “That’s come and gone. But to be fair, this has taken 15, 16 months to come to this point.” Cameron, for his part, has only had a few weeks to work on the matter. “I know he’s working on it and he’s called me a few times, but I don’t think there’s clear direction on it yet.”
Cameron has also had to contend with other serious issues, among them the homeless situation around the public library in Palm Coast, the continuing controversy over the proposed expansion of Captain’s BBQ at Bing’s Landing, the county park (an April 3 workshop is scheduled on that issue), and the Plantation Bay water and sewer utility.
It’s not the sheriff’s responsibility top resolve the issue. The sheriff is a tenant in buildings owned and run by county government, as is the clerk of court and other constitutional officers. So it’s ultimately the county commission’s call as to who goes where and how. But commissioners prefer not to alienate one or another constitutional officer–especially the clerk of court, who is also the county’s comptroller. Nevertheless, last month commissioners rejected a plan by the sheriff to build new storage for its evidence–not because commissioners objected to the idea on its merits, but because, as Commissioner Dave Sullivan put it, he did not want to build temporary facilities that would lift the pressure on everyone to figure out a permanent solution. But figuring that out has been the challenge.
“We really don’t have anything concrete at the moment,” Cameron said on Friday. “We’re going to move forward with the recommended testing, that’s our slow point, is the testing,” he said, treading toward what would amount to further delays in understanding what ails the building, even though for many of its former occupants and the sheriff, the question has largely been settled by testing and observations in early January, and by those testing results, issued at the beginning of this month. There’s water intrusion, there’s mold, there’s unhygienic conditions behind the walls. While the latest testing company recommended another series of tests, the revelations and the recommendations made one thing clear: even if there is more testing and the building is rebuilt to make it sound again, it will take upwards of a year, maybe much longer, making an interim solution essential.
Moving with a new round of testing, in other words, doesn’t address the sheriff’s immediate needs, which even Cameron–a former police chief–acknowledges: ““I’e got to do something relatively quickly, this thing can’t go on like this. As a former law enforcement officer I can tell you I’m surprised he’s able to function at all the way he’s set up.”
Bexley said “everybody is frustrated a little bit because there’s no cut-and-dried answer.” While he finds “unacceptable” the proposition that the sheriff’s operations could take up the entierty of the first floor, he said that his office would be involved one way or the other in “pretty much every scenario.” One of those scenarios, he said, would be to keep the arrangement what it is at the moment, with sheriff’s personnel taking up portions of IT, recording, finance and courts. “It’s awkward for the sheriff, it’s awkward for us,” Bexley said, but he stressed that he is “not fundamentally opposed to that by any means.”
Staly hasn’t spoken with him directly. “This is a county issue,” the sheriff said. “I’m not going to get into an argument with another constitutional officer. I’m a tenant, he’s a tenant, the landlord needs to be the landlord.”
Cameron, the landlord’s executive, has spoken with Bexley. “Tom has stated repeatedly that he’s not going to buy into any additional inconvenience to his operation over there unless there’s plan where he knows there’s an end in sight to it. He said he’s willing to help, but not to have an open-ended compromise to his position.” So the Strobridge proposal of using the courthouse for the foreseeable future hasn’t been re-submitted to Bexley. “He’s not willing to do that,” Cameron said. “I haven’t even proposed that to him at this point because he was clear he needed to know what the end game was before he would even discuss any further measures on his part, and I haven’t been able to provide him with an end game.”
Cameron says it will take some creative thinking, and some direction from the commission. But the commission is looking to Cameron to make recommendations. Everyone is looking for a breakthrough–a heroic move, if not a hero. Either has yet to take shape.