Last Updated: 6:54 p.m.
Flagler County’s meals for seniors program has been feeding the elderly in need since 1978, first at Flagler Beach City Hall and Bunnell City Hall. In 1983 it moved to Flagler Beach’s Wickline Senior Center on South Daytona Avenue, where it’s been since, rent-free. The Wickline Center was once owned by the county.
The building was ceded to Flagler Beach many years ago, on the condition that the county would continue using it for its daily senior program.
This evening, the Flagler County Commission voted 4-1 to end that long, rent-free relationship and approve instead a plan that would move the program to Church on the Rock in Bunnell and pay the church $3,000 a month in rent the first year, rising by $100 a month per year over the potential 15-year life of the lease, so that by year two, rent would be $3,100 a month, and reach $4,500 a month by year 15.
The county had use of the Wickline Center for nine hours a day for its programs, if needed. Its uses at Church on the Rock will be limited to just four and a half hours–a shortened time span Flagler Beach officials would have welcomed at their facility.
The county would also pay $300 a month in utilities at the church. The county says it budgets $11,000 a year for utility expenses there, but in fact, according to a billing document from Flagler Beach’s finance office, and even in pre-Covid months, the city has billed the county between $360 and $540 a month, so the county’s projected utility savings are not what it claims in the administrative memo to commissioners.
Put another way, the county will be paying Church on the Rock well over more than three times the rent it is getting for its own property at Bings Landing from Captain’s BBQ, where the rent started at $500 nine years ago, and is now $860 a month.
The county’s agreement with Church on the Rock was never put out for bids from other potential lease space holders. Al Hadeed, the county attorney, said the county is exempt from such a bidding process on real estate leases. (To defend against its breach of contract lawsuit against Captain’s, the county is arguing that there was no breach because the county never bid out the use of the space at Bings: the county in its pleadings to the court concedes it broke the law.)
County Commissioner Andy Dance, casting his first dissenting vote on a major issue, raised questions about the “due process” and transparency–or lack of transparency–that went into the county’s determination to go with Church on the Rock. He said the more than 7,000 square feet of space the county was renting “seems like an awful lot of space” for 40 to 50 people.
Heidi Petito, the county’s deputy administrator who’d been facilities director for many years, said the church site will save the county money on maintenance but conceded that “we don’t have anything to compare it to.” The county did not research other sites. She said Church on the Rock approached the county. It’s not clear how Church on the Rock’s personnel would have known that the county was even looking, since it wasn’t looking for a site. “For comparison’s sake we didn’t have another facility we could go to and say ok, what would your cost be per square foot.”
Pressing his points–he also raised the issue of rent being paid out of the county’s reserves, with no dedicated source of future funding–Dance said cautioned about the “trickiness” of public-private partnerships. “We have to be more cognizant of the transparency factor in public-private arrangements,” he said.
The county’s departure from Wickline was a surprise Flagler Beach city commissioners, who were not expecting it.
“We never as a commission asked the county to leave,” Flagler Beach City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur, who has been on the commission almost four years, told county commissioners this evening. “It was never a thought in the commission’s mind. In fact we wanted any future agreement to totally revolve around that program. It’s been there 17 years. So what we have here is a failure to communicate once again. We find out on Thursday that you guys are vacating or voting on a new location the following Monday. Two business days, after a 17-year relationship. It’s a sad day for me that our relationship is that weak.” (The formal relationship with the county started by agreement in 2003, though the county has used Wickline far longer.)
Two county commissioners–Greg Hansen and Donald O’Brien–disagreed with Belhumeur, saying they were under the direct impression from either attending Flagler Beach meetings or speaking with city officials that the city wanted the county out. County Administrator Jerry Cameron said likewise, attributing his sense to his discussions with Larry Newsom, who died earlier this year.
In May, after much discussion on the matter, the city asked the county to end its “interlocal agreement” with Flagler Beach on the use of Wickline, but only in light of the drafting to a new agreement that would cede the city more control on the use of the building. That is still what the city expected. At the city commission, which gives direction to the city manager, there was never a discussion about getting rid of the county, including with Newsom.
“At the end of the day the city takes control of the building,” but with a new use agreement, Newsom, the city’s manager at the time, told commissioners at a May meeting. “Based on the use of the building, I don’t see any changes we’re going to have with the county.” The county was using the building weekdays from 9 to 4. “We don’t see a reason to change that at any point in time.” The only difference, he said, was who controls the use of the building. “The use agreement, we still allow the county to use the building. Am I correct, Drew?”
“Yes,” the city attorney confirmed. (See the city’s agreement with the county here.)
“Once that happens, we’ll come back with that use agreement and we’ll basically go through with the county and they’ll sign as a user of the building, not as a manager of the building.”
“There’s still that chance they could say no, correct?” Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said at the time. Again, Newsom said the realities on the ground would not change–only the language of the agreement defining who controls the building.
“We’re asking the county to agree because we cannot unilaterally dissolve,” Smith said.
The agreement is to continue “unless both parties are in agreement to terminate,” Mealy said, reading from the agreement.
The county has not terminated the agreement in writing.
“So just for clarity Larry, all this letter is going to say is, we want to terminate the current agreement, it’s not going to go into who is going to use the building, when, and all that,” Commission Chairman Jane Mealy said.
“Not yet, no,” Newsom said. “It’s going to be going to the administrator, and the administrator has to put it on the agenda” of the county commission, Newsom said. That step was never taken before this evening’s request by County Administrator Jerry Cameron–who has a cozy relationship with Church on the Rock’s pastor: he also worked out the church’s use, with rent, by the cold-weather homeless shelter–for approval of the lease with the church.
“They knew we were going to leave, which obviated the need to redo the rules,” Hadeed said today, but even today that’s not how the chairman of the city commission remembers it.
Mealy, in an interview today, recalled the May discussion and said there was never an intention to be rid of the county’s program. “No, we said we wanted control of the building but that they could continue the services they had. We did not say they should leave,” Mealy said. “I can’t say I’m unhappy about it, because then we can use the building all the time. With the agreement that we had we could only use it on the weekends or the evenings and we’re always looking for places where people can hold meetings or events, and that could certainly provide that.”
The details of the agreement didn’t move to the top of the work pile in part because Newsom fell ill and was not in the office for many weeks. “I guess it never came to the top of the pile for McFadden to deal with,” Mealy said, referring to Rick McFadden, the city’s interim manager, “and there was no big reason for it, but we did agree to change the kind of agreement we had with them. They were still going to be able to have the meals and hold whatever classes they were holding, or whatever events they normally would have, they could continue doing that.”
Most of those getting meals there were from the Palm Coast area, Mealy said. Joyce Bishop, the county’s health and human services director, said “99 percent” of those who participate are from Palm Coast, with only a “handful” from Flagler Beach. Bishop said Church on the Rock’s location by U.S. 1 would make transportation much easier both for the county and potential participants from the west side of the county, or those who might choose to drive to the site from palm Coast and might not have done so to go as far as Flagler Beach.
Hadeed said he didn’t have “knowledge what city commissioners knew or didn’t know,” the discussions he was familiar with being limited to the circle that included himself, Newsom and Smith. The situation changed since May, Hadeed said. “We had a draft [agreement] but then we decided we weren’t going to use their facility anymore,” Hadeed said. “The discussions that we were doing really were between the city manager to county manager, county attorney, city attorney, was to give us enough time to find an alternative side.” The agreement with the city could not have been terminated until an alternative site was found. “We were told they wanted to have complete control of the facility, which is not a problem for us, provided we could operate the program in another place, which they found.”
Hadeed said that since the Wickline Center was used for feeding the elderly, it had to abide by rigorous rules–hygiene and the like. If it were to be used by other entities, those conditions would be compromised. But the city has routinely allowed other entities to use the Wickline Center in off hours, including a church. It’s not clear how the uses of the more than 7,000 square feet Church on the Rock will devote to the senior program would differ, since the space is also used by the Sheltering Tree’s cold-weather shelter for the homeless, among other uses. But the county will benefit from a dedicated space for its commercial refrigerator and a freezer and a convection oven.
County Commissioner Dave Sullivan said he had a “little worry” about moving from a government building to a private building, but thought the plan sound. He said a lot of people have been going to Flagler Beach, “so be gentle with the people who are gong to make this change,” he advised the county administration.