The Bunnell City Commission had at least two votes Monday evening to give back the old courthouse to the county. But after a two-hour discussion that revealed all five commissioners to be as leery about keeping the county’s “gift” as they had been enthusiastic to accept it last year, the panel voted unanimously to get an objective, factual understanding of how much it’ll cost Bunnell to move its city hall into the building.
If the costs are as high as the city manager and at least two commissioners say they will be, John Rogers, the commissioner who could have been the swing voter Monday, said he would be “the first one to make a motion to give it back.” For now, however, he said that such a motion would be premature. But barring the sort of more positive revelations that would counterbalance a series of disturbing discoveries about the poor shape of the building, it is unlikely that the numbers will tell a story more comforting than the one City Manager Larry Williams and Commissioners Bill Baxley and Elbert Tucker, aided by numbers produced by the city’s own finance director, produced Monday.
It isn’t just the old courthouse that appears to be in far worse shape than commissioners knew when they accepted it in November. It’s Bunnell’s finances that are taking on the same look: the city’s reserves are down, revenue is down, and there are no new sources of money that could finance the needed restoration of the courthouse, among other massive projects the city is facing (the renovation of the Plantation bay utility is another). The discussion Monday was a sobering summary of the state of a city unwittingly symbolized by the questionable condition of the courthouse it hoped to transform as its own.
“The roof leaks much more than we originally thought it did,” Williams said. “And it is still leaking. We brought this to the attention of the county and I also brought this to Mr. Cofey’s attention. Hopefully they’re going to get back and take care of these leaks. That adds some additional problems that are inherent in the building. As it was pointe out to us, it is a rubber roof, which is not a rof that is recommended, and probably will have problems in the future.” So it may have to be re-roofed, the city manager said. “A lot of what whoever is going to do may not be known until the remediation is finished.”
He later cautioned that a list of issues related to the courthouse will be costly and charged to the city’s reserves, because there is no other source of money for them.
That’s when Baxley made his move. “I’d like to make a motion that we abandon the courthouse and that we return it to the county.”
Tucker immediately seconded.
“I think we ought to get some bids of how much thew work is going to cost,” Mayor Catherine Robinson said, which prompted an argument from Baxley, who said she was diverting from the motion he’d made. Robinson said she was merely addressing the motion. “I’m still in the mode that we need to do bids in order to find out exactly what it’s going to cost. We have all these numbers floating around and we haven’t done due diligence to find out what it’s going to cost. So you have a motion on the floor and a second to abandon the building. The county may not take the building back. They don’t have to take the building back.”
Tucker outlined some numbers. “Just the minimum amount of money proposed is going to cost about $3.5 million for us to move into the building,” he said. Tucker cited a $1.6 million estimate just to redo the first floor of the annex.
“If we do bidding it may not cost that much,” Robinson said.
“It’ll cost more than that. It’ll cost more than what he’s estimating,” Tucker said, referring to Strollo and Associates, the architectural firm. “Here’s the things that he said. I wrote these things down when he was here last time: $1.6 million for the first floor of the annex, $2 million to mothball the courthouse. He talked about $300,000 to $500,000 for the mold remediation. He talked about having to rewire the building, both the courthouse as well as the annex.” With copper prices at $11 a pound, “just to rewire the building is going to cost a fortune,” Tucker continued. “Here’s the thing. I’ve got some financials from the finance department, finance director. And what we seem to have is a champagne appetite on a Mogan David 20/20 budget.” Tucker was referring to the ultra-cheap, double-alcohol wine, also known among its fans as Mad Dog 20/20, around since early Depression days, when Prohibition was repealed but poverty not.
“That just dated you,” Robinson said.
“Mad Dog 20/20, what can I say,” Tucker said. “So the funds that we have, and the revenue that we can get will never, ever, in the next 15 years, be able to overtake the amount of money it will cost just to get in. It’s not fiscally possible for us to do this just with these figures. The figures are going to come in higher than what these figures have been estimated by Mr. Strollo. The city of Bunnell does not have a revenue stream of any kind that will allow us to gain a volume of money to accomplish what it will take to restore the annex as well as the courthouse. We will not have enough money.” Tucker estimates it will be “in the neighborhood of $5 million to do what needs to be done. We will never, ever have $3 million, $4 million, $5 million to do this project. It’s just not going to happen.”
“I’m working with several lobbyists to try to get some grant money to renovate that building,” Robinson said. “I’ve had three different entities who have contacted me about renting space in there. So I mean, that’s part of what’s going on, is looking for some money that’s not going to be [property tax] money. I don’t know how feasible it is, but I know he’s working on it.”
Baxley said the city’s debt-to-ratio (2.74) is much too high, when it should be less than 1, while the city’s reserves have been halved in the past two years. “Bunnell is headed to bankruptcy,” he said, if the city continues on its current pace. “The city and the people of Bunnell cannot afford to take this route.” The finance director outlined the various decreases in revenue flows in the past few years. The city’s reserves are lower than $900,000, not enough for the minimum-recommended three months’ worth of operations for the city. Meanwhile, city staff is stretched out, especially its front-end personnel, which is now fielding double the number of utility calls it used to because Bunnell acquired the troubled Plantation Bay utility. The city needs to add staff, but cannot afford it.
“If we’re not careful we’ll be like a lot of other cities in the United States, we’ll be headed for bankruptcy,” Baxley said.
“It was great for the Board of County Commissioners to give us this wonderful gift,” Tuckr said. “I don’t think anyone realized what poor shape it was in, what work needed to be done, how much it was going to cost to refurbish it in order for us to inhabit it, and we’re only going to inhabit one floor, the first floor, that was the plan, but we still have to chill the rest of the building, and that was $10,000 a month when they were actually running the air conditioner before [the county] turned it up so high that it wouldn’t come on.” The city has no revenue to account even for that sort of expense. Instead, city revenue is shrinking. “We can’t do the courthouse. It’s just not fiscally possible.”
Tucker recommended that if the building isn’t donated back to the county, that it not be insured. “I would like to give it back,” Tucker said.
“We definitely need a new home because the county may give us an eviction notice,” Rogers reminded his colleagues.
“We need a home of our own,” Randall Morris said during the public participation segment. Morris was a candidate for the recently concluded race for two Bunnell commission seats (Rogers kept his, Bonita Robinson won her first seat, replacing Jenny Crain-Brady.) “I don’t think anybody would dispute that. I’m just not sure that’s the building.” He went on at length summarizing the building’s history, refurbishments and potential health issues.
Charles Gardner, a appraiser, said: “Mr. Baxley, I totally agree with what you’re trying to do, however I do believe that it is not an agenda item.” Gardner said he did not see the need for additional requests for proposals. But he’d just served on the city’s charter review committee, which got all of its 10 recommendations to voters approved, reflecting a greater emphasis on proper form in government business. “What you have here is a bad deal. But this bad deal isn’t on the agenda,” Gardner said.
Sims Jones, the pastor, was critical of what he called “attacks” by members of the board whom he did not name, though he was clearly referring to Tucker and Baxley. Jones’s criticism was unjustified: none of the commissioners had until then leveled any attacks, either at each other or at analysts, though Tucker had made clear that he was skeptical of certain numbers. In contrast with previous discussions on controversial subjects in recent months, Tucker, Baxley and Robinson, while not necessarily agreeing, were finding ways to present their issues clearly but without rancor (the only exception was a brief spat when Robinson insisted that Baxley more properly disseminate information he gathers through the administration, when it is relevant to discussions before the board).
Jones, ironically, only himself then turned on the attacks, charging that “a lot of what we’ve heard here tonight is smoke and mirrors,” criticizing commissioners as not representative of constituents and, his voice rising, challenging opponents of courthouse restoration to think in terms of their affection for Bunnell: “If you love Bunnell, you’ll find the money,” he said, creating an emotionally resonant but financially untenable parallel. A resident who addressed commissioners soon afterward disagreed with Jones and spoke of her appreciation for the diversity of opinions on the commission, and the willingness to engage the issue from various angles.
When Williams spoke again, he repeated his cautions and warnings about steep costs ahead. “It’s a challenge, and I’ll go whatever way you want to, but you really have to realize—and I’m sorry Mr. Langello, I’m sorry Mr. Barr—it’s not going to be cheap,” he said, referring to Mark Langello and Michael Barr, neither of whom live in Bunnell but both of whom are intimately connected to Bunnell’s business and government community, and have been supportive of the courthouse project. “I know you’re local, I know you want to see this done, but if it’s going to be done, I think all five of you owe it to the citizens to do it right.” (Langello asked the commission to table the issue to give the commission time to analyze the matter.)
Though Baxley’s motion was on the floor to return the building to the county, the commission never took a vote. Instead, it voted 3-2 to table the issue, then took up a motion by Rogers to get certain cost estimates on “whatever else it’s going to take to move into the courthouse,” only for Rogers to withdraw that motion. In the end, Rogers made a motion to get hard prices on what it’ll cost for the city to move into the building.
The approach doesn’t commit the city to moving in but to knowing more certainly, and more objectively, what sort of costs and liabilities the city faces ahead, through a request for proposal. Commissioners approved that approach unanimously.
“We’re going to work this thing through, and if it’s feasible, it will be, and if it’s not, it won’t. We just need to do our homework,” Robinson, the mayor, said, thanking her colleagues for the dialogue, and even thanking Baxley and Tucker for the homework they did.