The two-year nightmare for the County Commission and the Sheriff’s Office that’s been the Sheriff’s Operations Center in Bunnell came to an end today as the commission approved selling the building for $807,000 to the only buyer who bid for it, a loss of $423,000 from the $1.23 million the county paid for the building in 2013.
“This is a historical item, a historic moment in our county over the last few years,” County Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said. The sale unloads a burdensome white elephant and political eyesore from the county’s inventory, if at a dear price, and preempts the need for the county to demolish the building and try to sell the property itself. The sale is to a corporation identified as GPR1 LLC, owned by Pamela and Gary Roberts of Flagler Beach, and in business since 2006, according to the Florida Division of Corporations. Gary Roberts is a builder.
There was little doubt that the county would have to absorb a loss in selling the building. Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the purchase.
The county still has a roughly $5 million debt on the building, a debt generated by the costs of rebuilding what had previously been a hospital. The county bought the building in a deal crafted by then-Administrator Craig Coffee after largely secretive negotiations. The building purchase was controversial even then, and approved only through a 3-2 vote, with innumerable questions raised by commissioners and others about the wisdom of the plan.
The controversy barely abated since as the purchase became a focus of ethics commission complaints over a commissioner’s conflict of interest in the purchase vote (the state ethics commission sustained the complaint and slapped a hefty fine). Controversies then turned to health problems as numerous sheriff’s employees developed breathing, skin and other medical issues, requiring them to be moved out of the building, and finally ending in the sheriff’s complete evacuation of the building more than two years ago. The sheriff moved much of his personnel to the county courthouse.
Several analyses of the building’s interior air and structure produced conflicting conclusions about the building’s safety, though deeper examinations of the building’s conditions behind walls, along rafters and beneath floor tiles, pointed to serious issues such as water intrusion, bat droppings and the use of wood rafters from the older version of the building that county officials had claimed had been removed. Coffey’s handling of the problem and further revelations undermined employees’ trust in the county, ruling out any return to the building either by the sheriff or by another government entity.
“No one on this commission created the mess that we find ourselves in,” Sheriff Rick Staly told commissioners this morning. “I wasn’t sheriff, you weren’t on the commission.” He noted one exception, Charlie Ericksen, who had been on the commission in 2013 but who voted against the purchase. “But it was your job to clean this mess up, and as a property owner, owns three properties in Flagler County, I don’t like the debt that we’re being saddled with either, but the reality is, it’s time to close the chapter, put it behind us, and that’s one of the reasons why you guys are faced with this today.”
Ericksen said he was under the impression one of the past owners of the building before the county’s 2013 purchase had also sought to buy back the structure, but the bid came in too late.
The sale, should it close, means the county is “out of it,” Holly Durrance, the county’s purchasing manager, said. “If the buyer would choose to back out they would forfeit their 5 percent deposit.”
The sheriff has removed all evidence and materials from within the building “with the exception of some gambling machines,” the sheriff said, “and they will be crushed on site this week, because a court just gave us the disposition order. That’s the only thing that’s left, has no value, other than I get to crush ‘em.”
Denise Calderwood, a candidate for the commission, said the commission was “passing the buck” to future commissions that may face liability from a property she inaccurately described as a brownfield. (Calderwood through Family matters of Flagler had sought to use part of the property as a social service hub several years ago.) “Yes we can wipe it under, we can sell it, we can do that, but there are going to be consequences,” she said, “pass the buck gentlemen, keep doing it.”
“There’s not been any determination that it’s a brownfield,” County Attorney Al Hadeed said. “Brownfield is a very regulated process by the federal and state government. It’s not a declared brownfield. All the tests, there were tests that were done prior to the acquisition. Assuming all those consultants did their test accurately, they have liability for those tests, there should not be any liability. We’re disclosing all the results of those tests, they’re being provided to this individual that has placed the bids, so there’s full knowledge.”
County Administrator Jerry Cameron said there’d not been a clear path to reusing the building even with all the studies and analyses conducted. “It is important to note that the CDC did not say that this was a building that was inherently contaminated and could never be revived,” he said of the Centers for Disease Control, which sent a team to analyze the building. “It gave some suggestions for things to do to improve the status. The problem the commission faced with that is that CDC report did not say that if you did those things, it absolutely would be habitable, so it would have been a risk to go forward, but the people that have been on it are fully aware of the risk.”
Commissioner Joe Mullins was the dissenter in the vote.