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Testily and Disparaging Local “Papers,” County Administrator and Commission Defend Hospital Buy

| August 5, 2013

The newspaper boxes outside the old Memorial hospital in Bunnell. The county is not likely to include them in its renovations.  (© FlaglerLive)

The newspaper boxes outside the old Memorial hospital in Bunnell. The county is not likely to include them in its renovations. (© FlaglerLive)

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.

The 2013 Files:

The Documents:

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.

26 Responses for “Testily and Disparaging Local “Papers,” County Administrator and Commission Defend Hospital Buy”

  1. Pamela Andrews says:

    all this money to be spent and yet no monies to man our Fire Station at St, Johns Park…or to support our Homeless Shelter…
    still waiting for that to happen…
    so disappointed in my community…
    Promises…Promises… :(

    • Shocked, I tell you... says:

      You make a very good, but sad point. These officials are not properly maintaining the facilities here. The luxuries are coming first, friends of the Commission and the Council are coming first. This is a very bad sign.

      What year was our Community Center built? It could most definitely use a facelift, as could the Library.

      “Friends of the Commission and the Council” win again. Until everybody shows up to vote them out, money will continue to talk to these people.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would love to buy a pound of whatever it is the BOCC is smoking right now. It appears to be some serious stuff and they really need to share! This stuff could boost the economy in days! Make everyone pay double or triple what everything is worth………

  3. BW says:

    And there we have the real truth . . . our local elected officials miss the days we had no local news coverage. Thank you, Flagler Live, for providing the coverage and news we deserve. I don’t always agree, but you are all important.

    Coffey needs to go.

  4. Dave says:

    At this point it probably does not make a lot of sense for me to comment further
    on the purchase of the old Hospital. But since my name has now been brought
    forward on this issue I feel I must reply. First I stand on my position that the purchase
    of the old hospital is a mistake and will end up costing much more than the
    current estimates and simply is not a very good location. Second, I think we do
    need a new consolidated Sheriff’s Operaton Center to consolidate the widely
    dispersed locations now fullfling this need currently. Under pressure of making a
    decision on this since the County will shortly have to put a plan forward to expand
    The jail which will also have a big price tag we rushed the decision on the old
    Hospital without really thinking the consequences through. The forest for the trees
    The half cent sales tax increase will be really pushed to provide enough dollars
    over the next couple of decades to cover this. It’s true I am not an expert on all
    the details of this deal but I am a taxpaying citizen of this County and I have a
    right to my opinion. I caution both our elected representatives and taxpayer paid
    County émployees to be careful of looking down your noses and being put off by
    the citizens who are you customers.
    The County built an office complex on state road 100 that was supposed
    to be the home of County Government for the future with plenty of room for expansion.
    Then we built the EOC there also. So now we have the County Sheriff’s office
    to build and what do you know, not enough room there to build the offices for the
    Sheriff. Please don’t lecture me anymore on how well our brilliant County
    Organization knows how to plan, price, build or use our citizens hard earned tax
    in an effective way.
    I personally love that I live here in Palm Coast/Flagler County and I have no
    personal disrespect for any of our elected officials or County employees. I just
    want us to be intelligent,diligent. cost conscious, kind and aware as we spend our
    Citizens hard earned tax dollars now and in the future.
    Thanks, Dave Sullivan. Chairman FCREC

  5. Mike says:

    Nate McLaughlin and Barbara Revels need to be the first people voted out, they are both seasoned professionals in the real-estate profession, and they knew we could have gotten the property for far less. I hate to say it but I believe they have some personal gain, being through contributions or other monies. It is a shame that our elected officials could not find a piece of land and build a new green, energy efficient building for the Sheriffs dept. Right now land and construction labor are low, this would have been the time to build, not buy an over priced hunk of junk from investors. Shane on our county commission, they need to be voted out of office for doing less then what is best for the community.

    • Will says:

      Mike, your allegation of personal gain for Ms. Revels and Mr. McLaughlin is scurrilous and unfounded. It may be based on your misunderstanding, at least I hope it is, and if that’s the case, and apology would be appropriate.

      If you have facts, please bring them forth. If not, please don’t make unsubstantiated charges against these two ethical and responsible public servants, whether or not you agree with their decisions.

      • Mike says:

        @ Will, sorry you feel that way but I am entitled to my opinion, that is what I stated, “I believe” not they did. They have made poor decisions since taking office, the county sinks further and further into debt, they are both politicians and need the high dollar support of those investors. Why do you think two real-estate professionals would buy a broken down building such as the old hospital? The reasons they gave have no real financial merit, my only conclusion would be MY OPINION of they have an anterior motive for the purchase. You took this very personally and I do apologize that you are offended, but a lot of people feel the same way about our county, sorry but my opinion is they need to go next election.

  6. confidential says:

    We need the Feds investigating this city and county elected and administrators deals in favor of these local developers, attorneys, bankers and realtors, that generate our taxes/utilities rate increases. Dennis mention suing and maybe as last venue we have to.

  7. Timmy says:

    To hear and read that County Administrator Craig Coffey had voted to acquire the defunct Plantation Bay Utility at just about the middle of the night while we were all sleeping speaks volumes of what this man is capable of.

    As a voter I consider him a short timer but must be vigilant of his actions for his remaining elective position.

    Great reporting to Flagler Live as usual.

  8. RNYPD says:

    Thanks Dave.

  9. Lin says:

    I wouldn’t know 1/2 of what is going on if it wasn’t for Flaglerlive It’s no wonder Coffey wouldn’t want the public to be informed. Too bad so many of us are working to pay the ever-increasing taxes here and can’t attend all the meetings

    I’m ashamed to say I’m a Registered Republican — I probably am more a Libertarian or no party at all. The elected Republicans here in Flagler and the City of Palm Coast show no respect for the people who elected them and none for the citizens in general. Just look at the way the BOCC chamber Is set up with the public comment mike set up so the speaker looks at the back of Coffey’s neck. There is no logic to the vote to buy the old hospital building for the Sheriff’s office instead of the courthouse annex or another location, All the flaws in the building, lack of structure, the price, the lack of engineer’s report included in the appraisal — all noted in Frank Meeker’s spin of his vote. If I didn’t know that he already voted yes, I would have thought it was an explanation of why he voted against the purchase. AND he wrote, Honestly, I can’t help but feel I’m being led, at times by the nose to a conclusion to support the hospital purchase.”

    There is no sound fiscal reason to vote for the hospital purchase at this price at this time
    There is no sound fiscal reason to build a new city hall in Palm Coast at this time. Again, I regret my voting for some of the Palm Coast Council. Looks like they are trying to use the escape clause of not technically borrowing a certain amount of money to skirt the issue of putting it out for a public referendum. So the Council is using the gang of 6 prior politicians to be the bad guys and push this new city hall across. I hope the vote at least excludes the Council member who has a full time job as a lobbyist for builders and a conflict of interest here,

    Sound fiscal policy in Palm Coast City — I was hopeful in the past if we could just elect the smart people who would protect the citizens interest, but I’m disappointed to see that even the people I voted for lose their focus when they get in there and make the same mistakes that were made in the past. I have visited the City hall maybe 2-3 times in the 10 years I’ve lived in PC — what difference does it make what the building looks like?

    Don’t want to bore everyone with the School Board decisions here in FC but why are we still running 2 half-empty schools and cutting the school day down to nothing, dismissing middle school children (my old school administration said that is the most difficult age to handle) at 1:30 or so)????? and still giving raises, step increases, etc. Our priorities are so messed up.

    I have gone to lots of meetings, written lots of letters, spoken personally to lots of Representatives and people running for office but nothing changes for the better. Is it just both parties, all parties are ruled by cronyism, money, good old boys & girls networks, etc.? Unlike Mr. Sullivan, I have little or no respect for our representatives and I just want to pull the covers over my head, Perhaps this is why so few people vote here — it doesn’t make any difference,

  10. Doesn't anyone CARE? says:

    They “the commissioners” aren’t going to be there or work there, so they don’t care about them or the rest of us having to foot the BILL on this eye-soar..and YES VERY unhealthy building…You mark my’ll see future law suits from people getting sick FROM that place. It needs torn down and buried..

    How you would like to be in there even after they do their spring cleaning on the place, you can’t kill ALL the mold and asbestos that IS in that building…SHAME on ALL you that have your hands in this mess..

  11. Shocked, I tell you... says:

    Really good article, Flagler Live. I heartily agree with BW. We can’t thank you enough for bringing these issues to light. Certainly will not find this in either the Observer or News Journal.

    As to Lois DeCosta who made allegations of threats, I was in the audience yesterday and did not hear any. I would say the same to Vice Chair George Hanns, who referred to receiving threats. I did hear him say over and over that he “represents all of us, in spite of the threats.” I respectfully disagree. The views of this Commission, with the exception of one member, do NOT represent many of us.

    I have seen you stick the taxpayers with a broken and polluted sewage system costing millions, also paid to a “friend of the Commission”.

    In the years I have been here, I have yet to see you do something affordable for the taxpayers here. Perhaps that is why the County budget runs in the red?

    And to Mr. Coffey who repeatedly reminds us we can trust him, I say, “Really? You sneaked your own contract renewal into that portion of the agenda items which pass automatically and you want us to trust you?” “Then do something trustworthy.”

  12. Common Sense says:

    No matter how you look at this deal it stinks. An old building with mold and many other issues, bought by triple what it is worth which will drain our resources further. There were better options available but they would not benefit the powers behind the scenes.

    If nothing else the purchase of the decrepit water plant and this purchase should be enough to prove that at minimum these commissioners are incompetent at worse they are corrupt. Let’s remember these issues at the polls. Let’s make sure that anyone we elect will make a commitment to get rid of arrogant Mr. Coffey.

  13. karma says:

    …”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. “…

    If my house and everyone else who owned property in and around FL and much of the USA had appreciated that much in value, we would all still be living in the boom times. Even Hammock Dunes isn’t seeing such rapid appreciation in property values even though the rich are much, much richer today.

    Is this Bunnell located in Purgatory? Seeing as how the practice of buying ones way into heaven still exists, this is the only place where price appreciates at such a breakneck pace.

  14. confidential says:

    That is the latest disrespect to learn that the taxpayers that fund the exorbitant pay of the county administrator and the over 48,000 a year for each BOCC member, are set to speak looking at his neck or derriere. That speaks for itself…no respect for the hand that feed their mouths.

  15. Diego Miller says:

    Disfunctional County Administrator and Commission.

  16. FL Son says:

    So basically, the county has bailed out a group of investors who kept borrowing from whom ever would lend them money until the mortgage on the property ballooned to over 1.4 million in 2007. The 1.23 million would most likely be the remaining balance in 2013 on that mortgage. What a coincidence. I know when I’m looking to purchase a piece of property, say even this property, I would have taken the independent fee appraisal of 1.5 million and started deducting all of the issues with the property (which were not adjusted for in the appraisals). Roof, plumbing, code issues, etc. 1 million dollars later and $500,000 would be my offer, take it or leave it. Just because you paid less for a property than the seller was asking, doesn’t mean you got a good deal. Sorry taxpayers, you’ve been duped. Thank you Flagler Live for keeping us in the loop. Keep up the good work.

  17. NOSTRADAMUS says:

    Well Spoken KARMA !!!! David Haas was Let Go & Since He Has Gone it Shows Just How Bad We Need Him Back !!! If It Wasn’t For The City of Flagler Beach’s Version of ” One Flew Over South 2nd Street ” Heck, We Might Have Got Some MEDIA Attention Here!!!!! But Let This Ole Sole Predict One Mo Time: Better Move On “ANDY”. The Man with The “Master of Disaster” PLAN is Gunning for You & The Fire Dept Too !! “BARNEY” Beware!!! You & “Long Time Liz” May Be Next !!! ” BRUCE ALMIGHTY” is on a ROLL to CONTROL! Time To Clean House at The City & County Level ASAP !!!! Wake Up People!!!!!!

  18. Sherry Epley says:

    How tragic and outrageous that any of our local political officials expect everyone in the county to close their eyes and ears to anything reported in the media outlets they cannot influence. Good investigative journalism is what keep our citizens informed of the “facts”, and Flaglerlive does an excellent job of that.

    We all cannot possibly attend every city and county commission meeting. Instead of fighting against this type of “on-line” dissemination of information and dialog with constituents, our political leaders should be reading the comments here and appreciating the candid input from our local citizens. For example, while I do not completely agree with Mr. Meeker’s vote regarding the acquisition of the ruined hospital, I appreciate his article, home work and public communication with the Flaglerlive readers. More transparency in political decision making is exactly what we need, in order to be able to trust our political leaders.

  19. Polly says:

    Agree with the comment about future law suits due to “sick building syndrome”. Take a gander at Orlando Sentinel’s articles about Pine Street building that has now cost Orange County several million in law suits which were won. Also the Orlando Utilities Comm. building on Pershing Ave. as well as many schools that had to be abandoned. You say could not happen in this case – get a life. One employee sues – many follow.

    I would suggest the BOCC check their documentation really well. Also increase their insurance coverage. Consider leveling the building and taking out the concrete slab (also pollutents can hide in there)! Oh my, maybe THEY should have just used land available to them!

    NOTE TO FLAGLER COUNTY RESIDENTS: After this renovation is complete and the Sheriff’s office has moved…….GETTING ARRESTED MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH!

  20. Robet says:

    As published in the Palm Coast Observer today the new owner of Roma Court in Palm Coast has offered significant numbers of square footage for the Sheriff’s Office.
    On its face the terms appear to be as good as if not better than those for purchasing and old abandoned building.

    Let’s listen and dissect the responses from the county commissioners. Listen to their words and then consider the underlining meanings.

    Here is an opportunity for them to back up their words and seek a deal that benefits the citizens and not one that benefits some of the county’s connected investors at the expense of the citizens.
    One commissioner was quoted as saying he and the others who voted for the acquisition worked very hard. I don’t doubt that they worked hard my only question is who were they working hard for.

    And the same investor is purchasing Market Place. Using some forward thinking, he would more than likely offer the city an attractive deal. Based on past performance one can almost script the responses from: Landon, Netts, and the rest.

  21. confidential says:

    Roma Court in the center of Palm Coast Parkway just North of Belle Terre sold for only 1.5 million as per the Observer. A new building in a prime location and the BOCC is wasting 1.23 million in that contaminated, old, neglected abandoned for years hospital? What a fraud! On top of it the county manager criticize us for not attending their never ending meetings including the one’s intentionally held close to midnight? First of all we are not paid his salary of 200,000 or the BOCC 48,000 each, second and most important we have to go to work to pay for the taxes they dilapidate left and right. No time to babysit him and BOCC and keep them walking the line.

  22. John Galt says says:

    Folks, the commissioners except for one are taking good care of Mike Chimento. Wow, look at the profit he made in a BAD housing market. Birds of a feather flock together on the TAX PAYERS backs. The four of them including Coffee should be fired. Think about this one. Revels and McLaughlin with there so called real estate experience would know better. Do they not negotiate business deals? They will be paying off the donors who funded their campaigns. Like Mori Housaini who donated to you Commissioner Meeker. And Commissioner Revels you will be taking good care of Sam Kline.

  23. Raul Troche says:

    So, McLaughlin is in real estate and went through a bankruptcy in 2008, now he is wanting to purchase this property at this price? Hmmm I guess he is working towards his next bankruptsy. This time it will be for the county. It seems apparent that his real estate acumen is lacking in good judgement. If he couldn’t take care of his own, why is he handling the counties?

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