Note: for a 50-image photo gallery of the old courthouse and annex, the first comprehensive public look inside the building since it was evacuated in 2007, go here.
The Bunnell City Commission Monday evening took ownership of the old courthouse and annex from the county. But the vote was fractured and the decision fraught with unanswered questions about mold and mildew in the 87-year-old building , whether the city may lease the annex to businesses, and whether Bunnell may return the building to the county if the structure proves more burdensome than advertised.
The building’s interiors show serious signs of neglect and disrepair, with most spaces stripped of ceilings, piled with debris and rains of loose wires, and several parts of the old courthouse showing clear evidence of leaks. One room’s carpet, visited last week, was entirely soaked and brown with debris and old moisture, even though County Commissioner Barbara Revels, who attended Monday’s meeting, told Bunnell’s commissioners that the building had its roof fixed and was waterproof. She had not visited it recently, nor had Bunnell’s commissioners, with one exception—Bill Baxley, who raised the most concerns with the building and voted against accepting it. In fact, the roof was not replaced, but repaired in 2009, for $165,000.
The 3-2 vote followed Bunnell City Manager Larry Williams’s description of spending about an hour in the building a few days ago, and having to end his visit because of breathing issues. “When I left there, I was in there for a little over an hour, I had a respiratory problem,” Williams said, describing a coughing fit in his car. He urged the commission to test the building for mold before accepting it, and to find out, in current dollars, what it will cost to restore it and maintain it.
“Give staff the opportunity to go in and make sure it is sound, make sure we’re not going to send our employees where they may have health problems,” Williams said. The commission rebuffed him after a tortuous debate and two votes.
“There’s three areas in that building that are wet now,” Baxley said, addressing Revels directly. Revels made an I-don’t-know gesture from her seat in the audience. “In my opinion there’s a lot of problems in that courthouse that were not answered here tonight.”
At first Commissioner Jenny Crain-Brady wanted to delay accepting the building for two weeks, pending a more thorough inspection by the city. She at first appeared to have the support for that. “Maybe what we need to do is ask the county’s permission to go in and have an evaluation done,” Mayor Catherine Robinson said. And in an interview Friday, Commissioner Elbert Tucker said he wanted a delay: “I would try to postpone taking ownership before we had the answers,” Tucker had said.
But Crain-Brady’s motion failed, 3-2. Only Baxley joined her, with Robinson and Commissioners John Rogers and Tucker, in a shift, voting against.
It was a puzzling vote for Rogers, who, immediately afterward, raised the very same concerns Crain-Brady and Baxley had raised, and when the vote to accept the building was called, it was Rogers and Baxley who voted against, with Crain-Brady this time joining the majority, along with Tucker and Robinson.
At no point did any of the commissioners address hard numbers—what it may cost the city to refurbish even one or two floors, what it will cost the city to maintain the building. Last year Bunnell secured a $1.5 million loan from Intracoastal Bank to pay for design and re-construction at the courthouse.
A county analysis of repair costs issued last year put total reconstruction, site work and furniture costs at $5.2 million, but that was for the full 49,700 square feet of both the old courthouse and the annex. (The old portion is 13,300 square feet, the annex is 36,400 square feet.) Bunnell does not intend to use the entire structure. Nevertheless, it would be Bunnell’s responsibility to maintain, and should the city decide to lease the annex to non-profits or, potentially (as the city appears willing to do) to for-profit companies, it would also be the city’s responsibility to repair and maintain that portion of the building—at costs it cannot afford at the moment.
Bunnell and the county have been in discussions about the fate of the building since 2009. In 2010, it appeared that then-Sheriff Don Fleming was interested in moving his headquarters to the courthouse annex, with Bunnell taking over the old portion of the building for its city offices. But Fleming then dropped the proposal, not wanting to share the building with the city. Fleming again showed interest in the building last year, but lost a re-election bid. This January, the county and Bunnell agreed to split the building, with Bunnell taking over the old portion and the county retaining the annex, for a sheriff’s headquarters. But that was before the county took interest in the old Memorial Hospital, which it bought in August (for $1.23 million) with plans to move the sheriff there. The county then opted to cede the entire courthouse, with the annex, to Bunnell. The county commission voted to do that on Nov. 18.
Commissioners Monday evening spoke repeatedly of not wanting to risk losing what they described as “a gift” from the county. But Bunnell’s acceptance of the building was itself a gift to the county, which has been burdened with the building for years, with nothing but a pile of bills (and rubble) to show for it: Annual operational costs ran to $75,000, and that’s assuming very low power bills of $30,000 for the year, with an unoccupied building and a thermostat set at higher than bearable when the building is occupied. (Insurance on the building cost $33,000). Since the building was vacated in 2007, the county has carried out close to $400,000 in repairs, and spent an additional $140,000 on architectural construction and design costs.
Interviewed last week, Tucker was aware of Williams’s “asthma attack” (though he did not refer to Williams by name), and said that could only be ascribed to mold. “We haven’t been able to get in the courthouse to see how much it’s going to cost us to renovate,” Tucker said.
“The problem that I had was with a reverter clause,” Tucker said, “but since our attorney has explained to me how this reverter clause helps us, I’m OK with it now. My next concern is how much it’s going to cost if there is a mold problem in the courthouse. Those are my two concerns . The money is the concern. We’ll see if we can work through it.”
Wade Voss, the city attorney, went to some lengths Monday evening to caution the commission on a key nuance in the agreement between the county and the city: the agreement sets out three conditions under which the county may intervene to take back the building—if the façade of the building is not maintained as originally designed, if the city does not use the building for governmental purposes, or if the city attempts to sell or mortgage the structure. Yet the county may also choose to ignore the city’s doings and let Bunnell proceed regardless: the agreement does not compel the county to intervene. It only gives it the right to, if it so chooses.
Conversely, Bunnel has no authority to “return” the building to the county, should the building prove too damaged or too burdensome. Even if Bunnell were to find serious issues within the building, or discover it to be impossible to occupy without much more expensive repairs than it can afford, it cannot opt out of keeping the building at this point. The building has become Bunnell’s responsibility. For a small city that could not so much as repair its own small city hall a few years ago, when its roof leaked, forcing the city to squat in county offices, among other places, that’s a heavy responsibility.