Flagler County commissioners are considering a nuclear option to break the stalemate between Sheriff Rick Staly’s need for additional space at the courthouse and Clerk of Court Tom Bexley standing his ground against it: Forcing Bexley to yield.
“I hate to go this route but it is true that the courthouse is our building,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan said today. “We own that building. It would seem to me, if push comes to shove at some point, we just direct the clerk that we need additional space in the building, and we just–we make it–and accept whatever bad side of that will be as far as the clerk looks at the situation.”
“That’s certainly an option the board has,” County Administrator Jerry Cameron said. “I would hope that we could get this done without having to use those measures. But I am running out of options.”
Bexley is not prepared to give ground, though he doesn’t dispute Sullivan’s take. “Commissioner Sullivan is absolutely right, that’s their bldg, they can do whatever they want with that building within reason.” But forcing the issue, he says, would severely affect service to residents, and he’s prepared to look at his own nuclear option, though he’s not devised it yet. “I’m not about to sacrifice the duty I was elected to do to accommodate a county request, it’s not fair to the taxpayer,” Bexley said today. If forced, “I’ll exercise every option that I have, and I’m not sure what they are.”
Cameron described the situation to county commissioners as a “stalemate” in a meeting this morning. Bexley did not attend, but heard the meeting, and agrees with Cameron’s characterization. “That’s correct, absolutely. They want more, and I don’t want to give it.”
Some 60 members of the sheriff’s staff, including the detectives’ division, have taken up temporary office space at the Flagler County courthouse since last June, when they evacuated the mold-ridden Sheriff’s Operations Center in Bunnell. They’re on the first and second floor of the courthouse, with the sheriff’s top administrative staff on the third. It’s been cramped quarters. Detectives’ office area “looks more like a mail-order phone bank than a detective division,” Cameron said.
“Now it’s either time to bring it to a head or we need to lease the sheriff additional space.”
Staly calls it a crisis. “The problem is I went from 35,000 square feet to roughly 6,000 square feet. They’re in packed like sardines,” the sheriff said of his staff. “It has now come to the point where it is drastically hurting the operation, and the work environment for those employees. We have things planned like a real-time crime center. I can’t even implement it because I have no space. So now we’re starting to see the impact besides just the operational hassles that we have. Now we’re seeing real impact into the sheriff’s operations, and so my staff has tried to work with the clerk also and we have had no success, the same thing with your county administrator. It’s unfortunate because the best solution is the interim solution in the courthouse at the least cost to the taxpayers. But now it’s either time to bring it to a head or we need to lease the sheriff additional space. We can’t continue to operate, especially for two more years, in the working conditions that the employees are under.”
Bexley says he’s had to suspend plans for such things as a fingerprinting and passport-issuing center and closed the courthouse chapel (converted to sheriff’s uses). He’d previously said that he was looking for “an end game” from the county to consider some interim accommodation, but “I’ve got a promise of two years to be built and I haven’t seen a shovelful of dirt or a design plan yet,” he said of the county’s decision last month to build a new operations center for the sheriff in Palm Coast. Meanwhile, he said, he’s “bent over backward” to accommodate the sheriff’s space needs, but he’s not willing to provide more space than the current arrangement.
“I don’t feel like they’re completely informed about what the possible effects on my office could be. It’s huge,” Bexley said, describing a two-floor layout between the court division on the second floor and the records division on the ground floor. The sheriff has been asking to occupy more space on the ground floor. The court division can’t be relocated, Bexley said, because it has a dedicated evidence vault in the middle of the operational area that potentially contains hazardous materials, drugs, guns and any other evidence relevant to ongoing court proceedings. “It will never be possible to move operations out of the top,” he said. The bottom floor is lined with paper records, some of which have to be kept 75 years, some perpetually. (What records could be imaged have been imaged back to the 1960s.) These thousands of square feet of records include land records, old mortgages, deeds, criminal case files, county minutes and so on. “My records clerks have to have access to those records every day,” Bexley said. Moving them is not possible.
“I’m not about to sacrifice the duty I was elected to do to accommodate a county request.”
–Clerk of Court Tom Bexley
–Clerk of Court Tom Bexley
“They’re talking about keeping it there and for us basically to find a way to gain access to those records, working around the sheriff. Totally unacceptable,” Bexley said.
The county has few options. Commissioner Greg Hansen raised a possibility that’s been discussed previously: renting the 20,000 square foot Beutlich Development building on U.S. 1 and Otis Hunter Road, a building the developer built with the help of a $90,000 county subsidy to attract businesses to the area. But that would cost $240,000 a year in rent alone, plus an $800,000 buildout charge the county would have to pay. Cameron said the developer is unlikely to agree to only a two-year deal–and the county is strapped for cash. The courthouse option, in comparison, would amount to around $10,000.
Bexley says the last thing he wants is to have taxpayer money spent unnecessarily, But “sometimes your last and best case scenario at the same time is to spend the dollars to get that adequate solution that satisfies all the parties,” he said, “and I’m not sure what that is, that’s above my pay grade.” But the county has been riddled with expenses it turned out not to need, starting with the condemned operations center, which cost between $7 and $8 million to acquire and rebuild, and two buildings the county recently bought, for over $2 million, thinking it would use them either for the sheriff or the tax collector. Flagler, in other words, has a dismal recent history of real estate deals that have soured–and drilled holes in the county’s budget. The county is also looking at a $12 to $15 million bill for the sheriff’s new building.
That led to Sullivan’s idea–forcing Bexley to give in. “I’m just pointing out that ultimately that is a possible way we could go,” he said.
As he did before the commission finally approved a new building, Staly is asking commissioners to resolve the interim space issue. “I would implore you to give some direction to your county administrator on how to solve the interim problem sooner than later,” Staly told them this morning.” It is now an untenable, and I would call it a crisis, situation, and I’ve thrown up my hand, I know Chief [Mark] Strobridge has. So please, give direction to your county administrator.”
Commission Chairman Don O’Brien is meeting with Bexley at high noon Wednesday. “I’ve taken all these comments to heart,” O’Brien said, “ so I’m going to relay those to him in our conversations and maybe we can move the needle on that. I’m not promising anything, but I will, tell you I will deliver the message very loud and clear, and maybe that helps. We’ll see.”
Bexley said moving that needle is unlikely. Wouldn’t he come out looking intransigeant? “It certainly can make me look that way, I’m not really concerned about that,” Bexley said. “I’ve got paid to do a job, not to be liked.”