In a major development with numerous economic, financial and other consequences, not all of them mapped out, the Flagler County Commission this evening voted unanimously to build a new Flagler County Sheriff’s Operations Center–in Palm Coast, next to the county library on Palm Coast Parkway. The vote was also an implicit abandonment of the old operations center in Bunnell, which Sheriff Rick Staly and his staff have been referring to as “Mold Ops.”
The new building will likely be around 40,000 square feet and cost $12 to $15 million, drawn for a mixture of a small portion of existing dollars and a larger portion of borrowed funds. It will also pledge revenue from the county’s sales surtax for many years to come, essentially diverting all those dollars to the new building and preventing investments in other capital projects.
The new building complex would also include a branch office of the Tax Collector, but not one attached to the Operations Center. And a district sheriff’s office would be built in Bunnell. Finances for either of those additions are vague. Those financial options include re-selling the Sears building the county just bought for over $1 million, and re-selling the old bank building it bought last year, off of Old Kings Road, when it was projecting it as a sheriff’s substation.
Commission Chairman Don O’Brien said he did not see “ever a time” the sheriff re-occupying the old operations center. “We’re at that point where we have to realize that and plan for the future and get it done.” But he said the decision today does not address budgeting, nor does it address a specific location at the 17-acre library site. But it gives the administrator authority to start the design and permitting process.
“This will impact the overall county budget,” County Commissioner Dave Sullivan warned. “It’s going to hurt the rest of the budget for the next few years,” starting with the long delay of a new branch library in Bunnell, near the Government Services Building. He said the new building’s cost will also impact finances of the sheriff’s office and the rest of county government.
Staly told commissioners he favored three locations equally, each with its own pros and cons–near the library, in Town Center and near the Emergency Operations Center, behind the Government Services Building. But he did lean toward the library option distinctly more than other options as he spoke to commissioners this evening–if not personally, at least politically: he was also urging the commissioners to make a decision tonight, and he could sense what had become clear in the last few weeks: that commissioners as a whole favored the library location anyway.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said before the vote, sensing a resolution. He’d noted moments earlier that he and his staff, some 67 employees, had evacuated the Operations Center in Bunnell nearly a year ago, with no resolution since–and much litigation still ahead.
For Bunnell, the loss of the Operations Center is a major blow, economically and pridefully, if not politically, though the city’s political fears–that this would be a step toward Palm Coast becoming the county seat–are almost entirely baseless: Palm Coast has no interest in becoming a county seat and has never discussed it, and the proposition startles Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland when she hears it. Still, the disappearance of the Operations Center means the loss of a substantial economic presence, as well as added security.
Interim County Administrator Jerry Cameron said the library option allows the county to build on county-owned land and return currently county-owned properties back to the tax rolls, assuming the properties can be sold.
Cameron said the sheriff would maintain a “district office” in Bunnell, and referred to the Palm Coast option as a district office as well, thus preserving the notion–also not well defined this evening–that the sheriff would maintain his legally required presence in Bunnell. Cameron didn’t say where the sheriff would maintain that presence: presumably it could be in the old administration building, next to the jail, since it’s inconceivable that the sheriff would maintain–or would want to maintain–an administrative office in the courthouse a day longer than he has to: relations with the clerk of court have not been at their friendliest.
For Tom Bexley, the clerk of court, the direction the commission was getting ready to take left him sternly apprehensive. “Do you not know, or do you not care, and what I’m asking about is the impact to my office,” Bexley asked the commissioners. He was very concerned about a plan to consolidate the sheriff’s temporary operations on the first floor of the county courthouse. The sheriff is currently more spread out in the courthouse, among other locations his staff has been using since evacuating the Operations Center. “This is wrought with problems,” he said. “You’re going to do harm to my office and the constituents that I represent.”
But commissioners reassured him that they would not go the route of that one-floor consolidation, and instead stick with the current arrangement, which the sheriff finds uncomfortable. But it was the sort of compromise that left neither side too thrilled, while both sides know that it’s a time-limited compromise: the new operations center is expected to be designed and built over the next two years. By then, both the sheriff and the clerk will be back in office space on their terms.
What becomes of the old operations center in Bunnell (now unceremoniously downgraded to lower-case letters) is not clear, and commissioners at the moment seemed not to care very much. But they own an asset that amounts to a toxic zone they will not easily sell nor can possibly reuse in any meaningful way.
The presentation of various options and the accompanying analysis to commissioners was provided by Mike Esposito, who’s in charge of special projects in the county administration. But the options and the way they were prepared combined separate goals: three of the options had to do with a short-run solution. Only one had to do with a permanent solution. Both Sullivan and O’Brien raised issues with the approach.
Newly minted Bunnell City Commissioner Jan Reeger said she spoke as a Bunnell citizen, not a commissioner, when she addressed commissioners to say that logically she understood locating a “substantial office” in Palm Coast. But she said she would prefer to know when a Bunnell district office would be built, what she called “some timing, some clarifications, for all the citizens.” But if that was the most objection the commissioners were to hear from an official voice in Bunnell, even one speaking for herself as a citizen, they were not about to fret. Surprisingly, no other Bunnell officials spoke.
The most forceful public comment commissioners heard, aside from Bexley’s, was from Jim Ulsamer, the chairman of the library Board of Trustees who’s never at a loss for mordant words when the library is at stake: he’d heard hints that land set aside for a new branch library near the GSB could be carved out a bit for a sheriff’s district office. “Sheriff carries a gun but over my dead body they’re going to take that land,” Ulsamer said, opposing any plan to turn over the whole acreage to a sheriff’s building, he is not opposed to a sheriff’s substation having a portion of the land, as long as the planned library is left whole.