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As Bunnell and Flagler Fight Over Sheriff’s HQ, Nassau County’s Example May Point The Way

| May 2, 2019

sheriff's office location

Between the ceremonial and the actual. (© FlaglerLive)

Bunnell government last week served notice to Flagler County government that it is initiating the conflict-resolution procedure in the dispute between Bunnell and the county over the county’s decision to build a sheriff’s district office in Palm Coast. Failing resolution of the conflict, Bunnell may sue the county to stop construction. But County Administrator Jerry Cameron says the city has nothing to sue over.

The county received Bunnell City Manager Alvin Jackson’s certified letter on Monday (April 29).

“As the county seat of Flagler County, the City of Bunnell is justified in initiating this conflict resolution process in order to ensure the compliance of the Flagler County Board of Commissioners with the requirements of the Florida Constitution, in the interests of the residents and property owners of the City of Bunnell,” Jackson’s letter reads. Bunnell is seeking a “conflict assessment meeting” on May 13 at 2 p.m. in the commission chambers of the Government Services Building in Bunnell. That meeting is open to the public.

Jackson sent a copy of the letter to Sheriff Rick Staly and is seeking the sheriff’s presence at the meeting. Staly has repeatedly made clear to both parties in the dispute that he is staying out of the political fray. In that regard, Jackson’s assumption that Staly “may have a role in approving or implementing a particular element or aspect of any settlement of the conflict” appears to be counter to the sheriff’s public pronouncements. Legally as well, the sheriff’s landlord is the county, and the location of any sheriff’s facilities are ultimately the county’s decision, not the sheriff’s, though the sheriff’s advisory role is always part of the equation.

Before the county’s vote on a new sheriff’s facility, Staly, citing several possibilities–in Palm Coast’s Town Center, the library site and a location in Bunnell– said he would go along with any of the county’s choices as long as the county conducted a space-needs analysis. After the county chose the library site, the sheriff spoke appreciatively for “moving this football forward.” 

The county commission on April 15 unanimously voted to build a $12 to $15 million sheriff’s facility on county acreage near the public library in Palm Coast, and therefore to abandon the mold-plagued Sheriff’s Operations Center in Bunnell for good. Commissioners are calling the Palm Coast facility a “district office” no different than the one the sheriff currently runs out of City Marketplace in Palm Coast, only much larger. Bunnell commissioners say the county is playing with words, that the planned district office is, in fact, the old operations center shifted over to Palm Coast, and as such, would represent the “principal” office of the sheriff. By state law, the sheriff’s principal office and records must be in the county seat, which is Bunnell. 

Bunnell’s objections are leaving the county perplexed. County Administrator Jerry Cameron said he’d laid out the county’s plans to Jackson over lunch before the commission’s vote, and Jackson assured him that there would be “no push-back” from the Bunnell commission. That changed radically after the county commission’s vote, with the Bunnell commission approving a resolution disputing the county’s move and threatening legal action. 

“Their resolution really doesn’t have any force of law,” Cameron Wednesday. “In my opinion the resolution is just a political move. You’ve got to ask yourself: what are they going to sue for? For putting the Palm Coast district office in Palm Coast and temporarily housing some of the sheriff’s employees until we can build one here? This leaves out of the equation that the city of Palm Coast has been subsidizing the sheriff to the tune of about $3.5 million a year for enhanced services up there, and all that they’ve had is a very small office in a shopping center. Two very small offices in a shopping center.” 

Cameron added: “The idea that there’s some kind of objection to putting the Palm Coast district office in Palm Coast is really just phenomenal to me. I mean, Palm Coast district office is there, was going to be there before all this started, and I’m sure that we will house some functions there that are presently housed in the courthouse or the jail or somewhere, until we build the Bunnell one, and a lot of that will come back.” Cameron said he projects a Bunnell district office in three years.

Meanwhile, positions are already hardened regarding the county’s and city’s choices: Cameron doesn’t see the county backing out of the Palm Coast site anymore than commissioners in Bunnell see themselves backing out of their legal maneuvers.

A substantial part of the sheriff’s operations remain in Bunnell: the county jail is a $7.3 million operation, the bailiff department, all of it situated in Bunnell, is a nearly $1 million operation, and the 911 dispatch center is a $1.7 million operation. All three are solidly planted in Bunnell. The jail also generates not inconsiderable economic activity–not just because of its employees, but because it generates a constant traffic of inmates initially released in Bunnell, of families visiting the jail, and of associated businesses like bail bondsmen doing business in town. At the moment, a large part of the sheriff’s civilian and detective bureaus are in the county courthouse, as is the sheriff’s own main office. Those would move to Palm Coast, though the sheriff would maintain a ceremonial office either at the courthouse or at the former administration building near the jail.

Cameron doesn’t see the need for the county to go any further to justify a sheriff’s building in Palm Coast. But he said the county commission could go a step further and extend the county seat by resolution, to Palm Coast, without affecting the city’s autonomy.

Nassau County is an example. Nassau’s county seat is Fernandina Beach. But the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office’s headquarters is on Citizens Circle in Yulee, 12 miles west of the county seat. So is the county jail. Decades ago when the old courthouse in Fernandina Beach became unlivable and needed renovation.

“There was no other place within the city to move their operations, so what the county commission did at the time, they extended the county seat to Yule,” Sheriff Bill Leeper said. A courthouse annex, actually the larger part of the courthouse’s operations, was built in Yulee. The county jail and the sheriff’s operations center were subsequently built there as well, near the emergency operations center.

Fernandina Beach remains the county seat and a population center. But “the population growth is off the island, in the Yulee area,” Leeper said. “This is where a lot of development has taken place over the last several years. There’s not a lot of other pockets of land where they can develop” on the island.

What was termed a “centralization” of government away from Fernandina Beach was a central issue in the 1998 county commission election. “The centralization move has caused public outcry, especially from Fernandina Beach, the county’s seat, where officials and business owners say losing the courthouse and county offices has hurt the economy,” The Times Union reported weeks before that election. “County commissioners not only didn’t seek a referendum on moving the courthouse and offices, they also extended the county seat’s boundaries without a referendum.”

But commissioners had also faced serious legal issues when they’d dawdled over taking action on their failing courthouse and jail: in 1996, the chief judge in the county had suspended all civil cases for lack of courtroom space to hear them, and because commissioners hadn’t decided how to move forward. That added pressure on forcing the plan that became the move to Yulee.

After a few months of inaction and uncertainty over the fate of the old operations center–and developing friction from the Clerk of Court and the real possibility that Staly himself could have forced the issue, had he chosen to–the Flagler County Commission was more decisive, finally voting for a new building.

“All we’re suggesting that we do is we solve this untenable situation at the sheriff’s department by just building a building larger than we would have normally built it to house it temporarily, and then we’re done with the sheriff in Palm Coast for two or three decades,” Cameron said. “That’s the number one growth area,” and the area generating 80 percent of the sheriff’s calls for service.

Alvin Jackson’s Letter to Jerry Cameron:

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8 Responses for “As Bunnell and Flagler Fight Over Sheriff’s HQ, Nassau County’s Example May Point The Way”

  1. Percy's mother says:

    What a bloody waste of time and taxpayer funds. The dysfunction on the part of Bunnell city officials is astounding. You people aren’t winning any points out here in the real world.

    Bunnell is a podunk nothing town, regardless of its claim to fame as being the largest city or town in the State of Florida (in terms of acres).

    What’s the Bunnell govt trying to accomplish?

    AND no one owes anyone an apology (meaning Joe Mullins . . . he doesn’t need to apologize to anyone for being forthright) I heard that on WNZF last week and almost threw up.

    Perhaps we need a whole new mayor and city commission in Bunnell . . . a place which has not much to offer. The whole lot there in Bunnell government seem quite dysfunctional. Move on for God’s sake.

  2. Dave says:

    Bunnell is the soul of Flagler County. It has the most to offer the residents in this county from the soul food and culture on the south side, to the deep seeded farms and agriculture out west. Flagler Beach is indeed a gem but other than that The county is pretty cookie cutter and plastic if you will.

  3. Bill says:

    This is NOT a apples to apples comparison as the article says “.Nassau County is an example. Nassau’s county seat is Fernandina Beach. But the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office’s headquarters is on Citizens Circle in Yulee, 12 miles west of the county seat. So is the county jail. Decades ago when the old courthouse in Fernandina Beach became unlivable and needed renovation.

    “There was no other place within the city to move their operations, so what the county commission did at the time, they extended the county seat’

    There is PLENTY of vacant land in Bunnel to use for the main office.

  4. Right says:

    This is not a “no other place within the city…..” issue that would force Bunnell to expand the county seat as Nassau did. There’s plenty of land available.

  5. will says:

    Palm Coast is the population center of Flagler County. The main County library is in Palm Coast. The County owns the land that the library is on and the land that the County Sheriff’s sub station will be built on.
    Utilities are readily available to the site. Bunnell is the County seat and the City is important, but it should see the practical value in putting this facility where the greatest need is.

  6. Dave says:

    I think there is some nice land out at Russell Landing they can put the Operations Center

  7. Concerned Citizen says:

    What is the real reason that the current Ops center isn’t being demolished and then rebuilt?

    The current site already has power,water and sewage. There’s nothing in the woods next to the library. That infrastructure has to be built up BEFORE construction begins. Adding additional cost to the project.

    Is Marshall Earp so intent on having a building named after him that he will go against State Law? if the Sheriff doesn’t honor State law then how can we trust him to enforce it?

    Marshall Earp has turned out just as bad as some of our BOCC people. He likes to strut for the camera and run off and play. He’s exceptionally good at ducking responsibilty. He has one of the worst run agencies in the area and has done nothing to correct it.

    In the past several years we’ve had deputies show up drunk to work,deputies wreck patrol cars and have them broken into then inmates die at the jail. All have gone unanswered.

    He takes unneccesary trips over seas and hangs with ex felons. And let’s not forget the silly fugitve bingo game and the unprofessional green roof in sign. How FCSO maintains it’s Accreditation is amazing.

    We have elections coming up in 2020. I intend to remember all of the issues our Sheriff and other elected officials have had. Time for changes in this County.

  8. You won't know until you ask says:

    Just because Nassau did what they did doesn’t make it right or legal. Flagler County doesn’t need to be monkey see-monkey do. Get a formal opinion from the Florida Attorney General on interpretation of the Florida Statute and see what comes back.

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