“By the way, I’m building a house in Bunnell,” Sheriff Rick Staly told the Bunnell City Commission Monday evening as he was providing a policing update. “It’s not in the city, but a Bunnell mailing address, out on West 100.” He was referring to his future house on Crescent Lake. (He does not intend to move there before the end of his term, or terms, as sheriff.)
“So you’re in the county and not the city?” Mayor Catherine Robinson asked him, her tone as impish as her smile.
“I am in the county, yes,” the sheriff replied.
“We’ll have to work on that.”
“Well, you’re going to have to annex pretty far out.”
“I’m game, if you are,” Robinson said. She was kidding, though only tactically. There was a point–or a dig–in her interaction with the sheriff. It craftily related to what the sheriff and the county administrator, Jerry Cameron, were to discuss after the update: the status of the sheriff’s operations center’s future location.
The Bunnell commission threatened to sue the county after the County Commission voted to move the operations center from Bunnell to a location next to the county public library on Palm Coast Parkway. That threat is still on the table. The county now calls that operations center a “district office,” a distinction intended to sidestep the presumption that it would be the sheriff’s headquarters, or that the move would circumvent the legal requirement that the sheriff’s main office be located in the county seat, which would be Bunnell. To counter Bunnell’s threat, the county intimated that it could easily extend the county seat to Palm Coast without affecting political boundaries and jurisdictions.
Bunnell invited the sheriff to provide the update. But the sheriff knew what was up.
“I suspect that the reason this request was,” Staly told the commission at the end of his brief presentation, is “because of the decision by the county to build a new district 2 administration and operations center, and so because of the issues with the operations center at 901 East Moody. And I will leave that to Mr. Cameron to answer that. But what I wanted to do was, I anticipate at some point in the future there’ll be three full operating district offices.”
In other words, though the sheriff has had to evacuate the center on Moody Boulevard a year ago, the move to Palm Coast is part of a diffusion of operations center–the first of three steps, or the second of three of the just-opened, tiny district office in the Hammock were to count as one of the three offices. The sheriff said that in time, with projected population increases, all three district offices, including one in Bunnell, will be fully functional. But Bunnell will be last on the list of buildings constructed. Palm Coast is next, and that will be a massive, $12 to $15 million project that will have all the looks of a headquarters.
“That was one of the concerns that some of the citizens had,” Robinson said, “that if you moved our operations center to Palm Coast, would we get that same support and back-up, because it is important to us, and vital.” Robinson was changing tune somewhat: the commission’s opposition to the sheriff’s move, bitter just a few weeks ago, was focused on its legalities, not on the service the sheriff’s deputies were providing–particularly since Bunnell has claimed all along that it’s maintaining its police department because it can provide for its own policing. Nevertheless, the sheriff also provides significant backing to policing in the city.
“To answer that, there will be absolutely no change,” Staly said. In fact, training, Crime Scene Investigations and evidence storage will have new facilities in Bunnell in a matter of months, and the jail will remain there, generating significant traffic by deputies in and out of the jail complex and through Bunnell.
Cameron made points he’s been making for weeks: that the sheriff has been in a “dysfunctional” situation, with his core functions split and inefficiently housed between the courthouse and the agency’s old administrative building near the jail. If it weren’t for technology, the agency would have been “crippled,” he said. He suggested that “we may ultimately have to spend some money” for a temporary solution for the three years before a new district office can be built. Cameron was not holding out much hope for finding a compromise at the county courthouse, where the sheriff has had a significant portion of his operations but in inadequate space. Tom Bexley, the clerk of court, has been unwilling to provide more space, saying it would jeopardize his own office’s responsibilities to the public.
On Monday, however, Cameron was candid enough no longer to play wordgames with the name of the sheriff’s operations center. He did concede that the move to Palm Coast would be a “temporary operations center” for the sheriff, “and ultimately his district office.” That would be followed by the construction of a district office in Bunnell, though the timing of that remains dependent on getting enough revenue from the county’s sales surtax to finance the debt for the building. He expects that to be possible in three years–likely a more optimistic projection designed to placate Bunnell than a realistic one: the same revenue is to finance the $12 to $15 million sheriff’s building in Palm Coast, with other capital needs elsewhere in the county.
“We’re committed to putting it here, we’re committed to this being the county seat, we’re committed to protecting the heritage of Bunnell and the community pride of Bunnell,” Cameron told the commissioners. “We believe that the success of Flagler County as a whole is tied to its municipalities, and Bunnell is in a curious position that we recognize. While you want growth and jobs, you want to preserve your heritage, you want to preserve your way of life, and it’s going to take careful planning to do that.”
Cameron then threw the commission an unexpected bone–a new approach to planning in the county and the cities’ rims. It had nothing to do with the sheriff’s issue. But it appeared to be another attempt at extending olive branches to the city, if only to calm its fears of county presumptions. The idea is the result of discussions he’s had with fellow-city managers of Palm Coast and Flagler Beach: “In order to get that planning, I am proposing among all municipalities that we get together and put together a joint planning plan between the municipalities and the county so we can present to our governing bodies that for adoption. That would mean that anything that is contiguous to the city limits of Bunnell would be subject to joint planning, not just to county planning, then they do it in a way you don’t want.” And vice versa.
Such an idea would have been unthinkable a year ago, when Palm Coast and the county had different managers, and when turf battles defined all.
But for all of Cameron’s ideas, one commissioner was fixated on the location of the operations center. “Wouldn’t it be a lot cheaper to tear down the old one there and rebuild there,” Donnie Nobles, one of two newer city commissioners, asked Cameron, referring to the operations center at 901 Moody Boulevard. Cameron said no: it would be unsuitable for sheriff’s employees, “but it may be a suitable place for future growth,” he said, “it may be a suitable place to work something out with the city of Bunnell to things that they might want to do.” The county is still awaiting the results of further testing in the building. “If we can’t get that clean bill of health, we’ll need to tear it down and then decide what public purpose it can be used for.”
Commissioner Bill Baxley was skeptical about the county’s decision to start building the Palm Coast district office before Bunnell’s, but didn’t press the point. But for Robinson’s quips at the beginning of the segment, other commissioners stayed silent: here was their chance to challenge either the sheriff or the county administrator directly about the decision to build in Palm Coast. They did not take it, or deem it necessary to take it anymore. It appears that the sheriff’s and Cameron’s joint appearance before the commission on Monday went a significant distance to disarm the city’s threats of a lawsuit and calm its anger.
“We’re moving on,” Alvin Jackson, the city manager, said in a brief interview Thursday. “We realize that the board of county commissioners have made a final decision. That’s why we invited the sheriff and the county administrator to appear before our commission.”