Ratifying a proposal by Chairman Dave Sullivan, the Flagler County Commission on Monday approved building a new Sheriff’s Operations Center on an 8.4-acre site south of Commerce Parkway, within sight of the Government Services Building Complex.
The 50,000 square foot operations center would be built there by itself, not next to a library, as previously planned, thus giving the operations center room to grow in the future. But the decision means that the county is again relegating the planned library to a lesser priority, as it’s frequently been over the years. The south branch library will now be built across the street, on land currently owned by Bunnell’s First Baptist Church, and pending resolution of ongoing negotiations between the county and the church over acquisition of church acreage there, and the settlement of a $58,000 debt the church has owed Flagler County since 2017.
The county has the money to build a sheriff’s operations center, or at least the means to secure that money, with the county’s sales surtax generating much of that revenue. It does not have the money to build a branch library: the surtax revenue goes only so far. The urgency and politics surrounding the need for a new operations center are more pronounced–and consequential to public safety–than those surrounding the building of a new library. That, too, is likely playing into the calculations of Monday’s decision.
The commission’s decision brings more certainty to a start date on architectural design and construction of a sheriff’s operations center, potentially bringing to an end by late 2021 the sheriff’s nomadic existence since the agency’s evacuation from the previous operations center in Bunnell. That building was plagued with mold and other sick building-like problems that had made dozens of employees sick. Much of that operation has been temporarily relocated to the county courthouse.
“I just want to get this morning, we’ve taken a long time,” Sullivan said, prefacing his motion to get the sheriff’s building sited on the former library site, and have the planned library move across the street, pending land acquisition there. Sullivan used the word “eventual” in reference to the library, underscoring that perennial uncertainty.
There may have been some interest in waiting for the land negotiations with the church to conclude. But County Administrator Jerry Cameron cautioned: “If we are waiting to see the outcome of our negotiations with the Baptist church, that would delay the project probably three months, to get that fully in place and to get that property closed.”
Cameron and others, including architects, had already established that building both the sheriff’s building and the library on the same site on the south side of the street might work in the short run, albeit with cramped parking, but with many drawbacks. The commission had bought the site for $546,000 three years ago to build just a south branch public library there.
Jim Ulsamer, the library board’s chairman, wasn’t enthusiastic about the library being behind the operations center rather than fronting Commerce Parkway. “People go to the library because they want to. Often people go to an Operations Center because they have to,” Ulsamer said. Sheriff Rick Staly was concerned about tight parking conditions that would result. And neither Staly and Ulsamer saw no room for growth for either building if both were placed jointly on the south end of the Commerce–let alone having room to build a community center there at some point. That’s part of the county’s future plans as well.
“If you still combine us on the same property, which can be done, you are doing a disservice to a sheriff 15, 20 years from now, and the same thing with the library, because you will have landlocked them with no expansion,” Staly told commissioners. “So you’re almost repeating the same things that have been made historically. And from what I understand from the church, they are extremely interested in working out a deal with the county, but that’s for your county administrator to explain.”
The issue with the church is mired in the complications of land-use rules and distant agreements. In 2006 the county, Bunnell and the church penned an agreement allowing the county to Extend Commerce Parkway so the Government Services Building complex, including the Emergency Operations Center, would have a second way in and out. The church worked closely with the county, providing some of its land for the project. (Commerce Parkway is eventually intended to be a ring road, or bypass around south Bunnell, connecting State Road 100 with U.S. 1. It is expected to generate significant traffic at that point.) While the church provided some acreage, it also owed the county money for what it gained. The balance set by the county was $58,000, an amount the church has yet to pay. That amount is now playing into the negotiations over the county carving out additional acreage from the church’s existing 15 acres. A large segment of that acreage on the south end of the church is fallow.
“I probably would have lined up and had the deal closed on the property the church owns to make sure you had both locations secured,” Ulsamer said today. The uncertainty over a sure outcome favoring the county and the library has him concerned. “I’m very concerned because I haven’t been part of the negotiations. Maybe they’re proceeding with terrific good will and everything will be fine. But it does put the location of the library in jeopardy. So yeah, I’m going to be concerned until the deal is closed.”
Just a few months ago, none of those issues were a concern. The library was set to go on the acreage at the south end of Commerce Parkway, with a smaller sheriff’s district office planned there. The larger operations center was to be built on acreage next to the public library’s main branch in Palm Coast. But Sullivan changed course on that, asking the administrator to explore moving the operations center back to Bunnell and selling the Palm Coast acreage to pay for the project. Other commissioners went along.
The perhaps unintended consequence of the county’s prevarications placed the sheriff’s operations center and the library in contention for the same acreage. It’s been another example of commissioners’ chronic indecision and zigzagging. Staly picked up on the problem as he addressed them Monday.
“If decisions had been made long before tonight,” the sheriff said, “we would probably be moving into the new building probably the next month. We’ve been operating for two and a half years in a very decentralized, inefficient operation, and the men and women have been resilient, they’ve delivered more than a 36 percent crime reduction to this community in three years, and thanks to the clerk working with us we were able to get enough space cobbled together that we can do some initiative. But we have to get moving, we can’t wait any longer for these kind of decisions.”
Commissioners finally voted 5-0 to go with the sheriff’s operations center on the old library site, and the library branch on an eventual site on what’s now church property. That doesn’t mean commissioners can’t or won’t change their mind yet again. The sheriff isn’t likely to be assured of that direction until he sees the structure going up.