The Flagler County Commission at 5:30 this afternoon agreed in a historic 4-1 vote to buy the old Memorial hospital in Bunnell and convert much of it into the Sheriff’s Office’s next headquarters, even though the estimated cost of that option–$6.6 million—is almost $1 million higher than the commission’s previous idea: to move the sheriff into the old courthouse. (See a chart of the options’ cost breakdowns below.)
County Commissioner Charlie Ericksen was the lone dissenter.
Commissioners endorsed buying the hospital for $1.23 million from a local consortium after a pair of meetings that stretched over four and a half hours and featured extensive presentations outlining, among other things, seven options where the county could move the sheriff. County Administrator Craig Coffey made clear that he favored the old hospital for several reasons: it’s a one-story building. It’s expandable, ensuring a viable location for several decades. It’s centrally located in an area of Bunnell that would benefit from it economically and from a community policing standpoint (the building is at the edge of South Bunnell, where crime is concentrated). And the sheriff would not have to share the facility with Bunnell’s city government, as the sheriff would were headquarters moved into the old courthouse.
The decision ends nearly four years of wrangling between the county, the sheriff’s office and Bunnell over where, when and how to move the sheriff’s office. It also means that the old courthouse will most likely belong entirely to Bunnell.
About 18 people addressed the commission, some of them in each of the two meetngs, most of them lending their support for the hospital option, for reasons that generally paralleled Coffey’s. Even Armando Martinez, the Bunnell City Manager, carefully spoke of his support for the hospital option—not to kick the sheriff out of a prospective joint use of the old courthouse with Bunnell, but to spur an economic revival in Bunnell’s core downtown district. Mayor Catherine Robinson echoed the same notion, but said the city would be supportive of a move either into the hospital or the courthouse annex.
Lea Stokes, the former Flagler County Chamber of Commerce chairwoman, said the loss in tax revenue—by moving the hospital from private to public hands—would be negligible.
The hospital option has been controversial from the moment it was made public: the $1.23 million cost is three times its assessed value, and twice its just market value, according to the property appraiser’s latest figures. The buildings is also, its shell aside, worthless, with significant repairs to its structural integrity and its roof and some environmental clean-up necessary. The building is owned by three men, two of them locally prominent—and politically influential—men: Michael Chiumento, the veteran attorney, and Bruce Page, the banker.
A majority of commissioners have dismissed any notion that they were treating the sellers—whose names have never been mentioned in any of the several public meetings the commission has held on the matter since May—any differently than they would have had the sellers been less known, or prominent.
Still, the hospital option drew opposition from a minority of the 18-odd people who addressed the commission, among them two former county commissioners—Alan Peterson and Hutch King. Peterson
“You need to give the public more information as to the sheriff’s wish list, what he can live with and what he can live without,” Peterson said. “You front-loaded it to make the hospital the best and only choice.”
King criticized commissioners for either not doing their homework or for being ready to make “profiteers” of the hospital’s owners.
County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin addressed the allegation head-on. “I will not sit back and have the integrity of this board questioned and disparaged randomly without any evidence to that whatsoever,” he said. “These are good people. These guys have worked hard. We’ve had a number of workshops.” Who an owner is or whether they make a profit or loss is not as material as how the property work within the county’s plans now and into the future, he said.
Sheriff Jim Manfre, who’s been careful not to endorse one option over another, nevertheless had earlier assured the commission that a one-level building was his preference, which had the same effect as an endorsement.
“We’re really down to the last leg right now, where is the best place for the public to have a sheriff’s office,” Manfre said. “We’re scattered in too many locations. Any organization works best when it’s centrally located.” He said the future argues for the hospital location, and brings operations closer to the community (though the annex would achieve that goal equally, and remain at the edge of South Bunnell).
“It’s not the cheapest but it’s the best overall value,” Coffey had said of the hospital building.
The annex offers more square footage, good parking (236 parking spaces), good location downtown, no environmental issues, no property purchasing issues, and there’s redevelopment and community policing in the area. But the building is not easily expandable to 50,000 square feet. It’s multi-story, which creates some operational issues for the sheriff. There is no vehicle impoundment area, and no secure area, outside the building, for sheriff’s needs, as the sheriff’s office has now on Justice Lane. Sharing the building with the city of Bunnell may not always work out. “Tensions tend to arise,” Coffey said.
Still, the courthouse annex offers the lowest-cost option, at $5.7 million.
The administration also considered tearing down the old jail on State Road 100 and building a two-story, 25,000 square foot building, with capacity to double that in the future. But the option has fewer parking spaces and a longer list of limitations for sheriff’s operations, not to mention a more expensive cost: $6.53 million. The administration considered building on the campus of the Government Services Building, but three such options would make it an even tighter fit—limited parking, environmental issues, limited expansion capabilities, and a $6.3 to $7.2 million cost.
Tacking the sheriff’s office to the existing Emergency Operations Center also would not work well, in the administration’s analysis, as it would displace existing staff and have its own limitations, and cost $7 million. Coffey expressly recommended against that option.
And he brought back the discussion to the long-term values of the old hospital.
“When I came into this meeting the hospital location was not number 1 on my list. Since what I’ve heard, I think the location is number 1, but I’m not yet convinced of the cost of retrofitting that building will be near the costs that have been estimated here, and that’s what I’m concerned about.” He said the reconstruction price will not stay anywhere near the $6 million advertised range. “To me, it’s a knock-down site,” he said.
“What we’re seeing here’d better be reality,” County Commissioner Frank Meeker said, warning against the plan being “pie in the sky.” If it is–if costs begin to mount in the future–Meeker said it will affect his trust of the county staff and the way he votes on all matters in the future.
Cost Comparisons: The Seven Options As Presented By The County in 2013
|Courthouse Annex||Old Jail||Old Hospital||Old Hospital if Demolished and Rebuilt||GSB South of the EOC Building||GSB South of Circular Road||GSB East Courthouse Wing|
|Property Purchase Cost (*)||None||None||$1,230,000||$1,230,000||None||None||None|
|Architect, Permits etc.||$250,000||$400,000||$400,000||$400,000||$400,000||$400,000||$400,000|
|Brick Facade Work||$100,000||None||None||None||None||None||None|
|Structural Upgrades (**)||$300,000||None||$450,000||None||None||None||None|
|Transportation Impact Fees (***)||None||$15,000||None||None||$25,000||$25,000||$25,000|
|Water and Sewer Impact Fees||None||$10,000||None||None||$25,000||$25,000||$25,000|
|Wetland and Floodplain Mitigation||None||$50,000||None||None||$100,000||$300,000||None|
(**)Bringing structures to 141 mph windload.
(***) Scheduled to be back in effect in Oct. 2014.
Source: Flagler County Administration.