To hear County Administrator Craig Coffey describe it, people shouldn’t believe what they read or hear in the media. They should attend commission meetings and read commission documents. That way they’d better understand why the commission votes the way it does, as it did last week, 4-1, to approve the 1.23 million purchase of the old, 60,000 square-foot Memorial hospital building in Bunnell, though it’ll have to spend roughly $7 million in all to make just a portion of it livable enough for the sheriff to move in.
Coffey was responding with a hint of testiness commissioners echoed in their own responses to a half dozen speakers who gave the commission an earful about the purchase during the commission’s meeting Monday morning. But it was a small number of critics, relatively speaking, and an indication that the local Republican Executive Committee’s call to members to pack the house to oppose the vote did not carry very far.
“I along with many Flagler County citizens are disappointed with the vote by the Flagler County Commissioners to buy the old hospital in Bunnell for reconstruction as the Sheriff’s Operation Center and HQ,” Executive Committee Chairman Dave Sullivan wrote his members over the weekend, evoking “The Money Pit” and another movie that came to his mind when he thought of the hospital deal.
“For those of you that remember the movie ‘Fort Apache: The Bronx,’” Sullivan wrote, “we will now have ‘Fort Apache: Bunnell” and if you know the story of the movie it involved surrounding a bad crime area in the Bronx, NY with police to keep crime away from other parts of the city. It’s based on a true story and the concept was discredited because it did not work and was viewed as anti racial among other things.” Sullivan forwarded a “call to action” from fellow-Republican, tea party member and frequent government critic Dennis McDonald to turn out at the commission meetings.
Citing the nearly $7 million it will take—at a minimum—to make the building livable, Ron Herman asked: “Are we trying to make an opulent building like our opulent courthouse here? Do we really need that?” Doug Chozianin said: “Frankly I think the county is trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” The sheriff he said should get the square footage he needs, but the county could provide it to him by building a building to his needed size for half the cost proposed through the purchase of the hospital—a contention made without documentation, however, and that the county administrator later dismissed, saying it did not take in consideration building requirements for a sheriff’s office.
“Renovating an old building and trying to eke out an extra 65,000 square feet, I don’t know what that 65,000 square feet is going to do for us,” Chozianin said.
Mary Hansen of Palm Coast noted that the school district has some two thirds of more of its students on free or reduced lunches, while the county itself is not doing much better, suggesting that the county was out of step with its means. She said the county was “making a very big mistake” by acquiring a hospital building, if public health were to be a concern, though the county is confident, based on a physician’s counsel, that there is no health risk, given the building’s decade-long dormancy.
When it was McDonald’s turn to speak, he compared the 4-1 vote to buy the hospital to the commission’s 4-1 vote last October to bypass a referendum and impose a 20-year infrastructure sales tax. He described that majority as “four commissioners that think they know better for us.” Addressing Commissioners Barbara Revels and Nate McLaughlin in particular, because they are Realtors, McDonald added: “You’re not naïve. You know how due diligence works, and you’ve been in this countless times before on a private, professional basis. Is this how you’ve represented your clients in practice? I don’t believe that’s the case. If you had, then consequently you would be suffering from it now, and you appear to be doing quite well.”
In fairness to McLaughlin and Revels, neither had an easy time of it during the housing crash, and McLaughlin had to declare bankruptcy in 2008. Their $48,000 county commissioner’s salary has helped cushion the blows. McDonald himself had a chance to have his philosophy tested directly by the electorate when he ran for the county commission in 2012. He was defeated in the Republican primary, by Frank Meeker—who now sits on the commission—by six points.
“In case you haven’t noticed, we the taxpayers are not having a good experience here with your representation. This deal was done well before the sun came up last Thursday,” McDonald continued, hinting at legal action if the purchase of the hospital moves forward.
Other speakers questioned why the building purchase was not placed on a referendum, though nothing in county ordinances requires that the county places it on a ballot. Previous major capital purchases or projects, such as the construction of the Government Services Building and the courthouse, were approved by voters in bond issues ratified at the ballot box. The county commission is paying for the hospital acquisition with sales tax money—but a sales tax it approved unilaterally, by commission vote, rather than by popular vote, when it looked apparent last fall that a ballot measure would have failed.
One speaker wondered whether a way to back out of the buying contract was secured, and said the county is not “a social service agency that helps people with money to make good on their investments that they choose not to maintain.” She was referring not just to the hospital, which has been in decay since 2003, but to the Plantation Bay utility, belonging to Daytona Beach developer Mori Hosseini and in great disrepair, which the commission was, ironically, formally acquiring at the same meeting today. Others ridiculed the level of “due diligence” the county did on the acquisition, saying it wasn’t sufficient.
Last week at the workshop and the subsequent meeting where the hospital-acquisition vote was carried out, there were twice as many speakers, and most of those were in support of the acquisition, lavishing praise on the county administration’s due diligence and bucking up the commissioners’ intent to vote for the building.
And today Lois DeCosta, a Palm Coast resident, ridiculed the notion that the matter should have been put to a referendum. “We cannot run by plebiscite and have every single item of contention, and we can’t threaten people all the time and live under threats,” she said. “I hope that this is the right decision, I’m not a decision, but I support the people whom I elected, and I elected them to make the decisions I cannot personally make, and I thank you all fort this service.”
The commission then addressed the issues raised by the speakers, such as the allegation that the county had gone for the asking price. The administrator’s answer was a classic straw-man argument, however, which mis-characterized the critics’ point.
The asking price speakers referred to (and explicitly so, when McDonald spoke) was the $1.23 million the county paid for the building, not the $1.7 million the owners of the hospital had previously advertised, but in vain, on a market where they could not find a buyer.
Palm Coast lawyer Michael Chiumento had bought the building with other partners in 2003 for $750,000, as an investment, but was unable to unload it since. His partners and the name of his partnership changed along the way, as he brought on Bruce Page, president of Intracoastal Bank, but the building remained unsold through the housing boom. The Flagler County property appraiser placed its just market value at half the price the county paid for it.) Coffey said the $1.23 million was the negotiated price, as the county would have never gone for the $1.7 million. But it was the $1.23 million in relation to the original price the owners paid for the property, and contrasted with its current value by the property appraiser, that drew criticism. (Two independent appraisals, conducted without the benefit of structural and environmental analyses that would have influenced the final number, placed the value at $1.5 million.)
Coffey said the known deficiencies of the building compelled the lower price that the county was willing to buy. “We definitely did not pay asking price,” Coffey said, dismissing “what’s read in the paper,” though no media has, in print or otherwise, had stated that the county had gone for the original asking price.
Coffey dismissed the contention that one of the appraiser’s reports had placed the useful lifespan of the hospital at 15 years. It doesn’t, but that’s assuming nothing is done to the building. A renovated building would stand for half a century, Coffey said, possibly longer.
McLaughlin had his own straw men when he countered the notion that “this was an overnight decision,” saying there’d been workshops and public discussions “for about six years.” He was referring to discussions about the sheriff’s office and its future, which for almost three years centered on the feasibility of the old courthouse annex. But in fact, the hospital option was never mentioned, nor considered, at least not publicly and certainly not in a commission meeting or workshop, until it was revealed, on FlaglerLive, on April 25—when it was also revealed that every commissioner had known about the talks for a while, but had kept them secret.
Coffey said analyses of the sheriff’s jail needs go back to 2005—but jail needs are an entirely different matter.
He then made his insult of local media explicit: “I wouldn’t encourage people to read the paper, necessarily, it’s very short snippets. I’d encourage them, if they’re really concerned about this thing, to actually go back and listen to the workshop and review all the material, not just what someone has told you happened or what’s happening out there. Find out for real what’s happening.”
“Yeah,” McLaughlin said. “I thank you for that.”
But few of the issues raised by speakers last week or this week—or various media’s reporting–were based on anything other than the raw materials in the very reports Coffey was referring to, or the substance of the meetings and workshops, though critics—including Frank Meeker, who voted for the acquisition and analyzed the documents extensively—noted that Coffey was publishing only the documents he wanted published to steer the decision a certain way. That’s not unusual: it’s what county and city managers do routinely. But they seldom interpret their version of the truth as omnipotent as Coffey did.