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.