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Now Leery of Old Courthouse, Bunnell Fears Money Pit and Talks of Giving It Back

| March 25, 2014

Lost allure: the Bunnell City Commission may want to give back the courthouse to the county.  (c FlaglerLive)

Lost allure: the Bunnell City Commission may want to give back the courthouse to the county. (c FlaglerLive)

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.

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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.

“What we seem to have is a champagne appetite on a Mogan David 20/20 budget.”–Commissioner Tucker

“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.

City Manager Larry Williams. (© FlaglerLive)

City Manager Larry Williams. (© FlaglerLive)

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.

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17 Responses for “Now Leery of Old Courthouse, Bunnell Fears Money Pit and Talks of Giving It Back”

  1. Wolley Segap says:

    No real estate interests here… no one one buying…no favors. So are we seeing in Bunnell the argument/concerns about cost and possible health issues associated with the old court house building that the County should have before renovation of the old hospital building? The old courthouse is in much better shape than the old hospital….

  2. Lin says:

    I’m trying to use my filter here & not say all the clichés that come to mind.

    How do these representatives even say they represent their constituents when they don’t have a clue how to spend the taxpayers’ money in a responsible way? How did they take the courthouse not knowing the condition & how much they would have to pay to fix it? It is such a basic when you buy or take possession of real property to have an unbiased engineer report — does no one have any clue?

    It was said at the time that the rate payers would be paying costs of the water. Yet the City of Bunnell can’t handle the calls — didn’t they know there would be calls when they pushed for the purchase? And our esteemed Flagler Commissioners bought into that money pit deal also. Didn’t they have a clue? Buy the moldy hospital for more than it’s worth before doing an engineer report? Only one of the Flagler Commissioners have a clue?

    Who owns Bull Dog Drive? Does the City of PC have a clue?

    I read the Flaglerlive story about the SOE & the City — I thought on principle the SOE was right, but after reading all the correspondence, I just thought, oh just get on with it already and both sides play nice.

    I think there is a whole ‘nother story here in Flagler, Bunnell and Palm Coast. I appreciate all the insights and digging that Flaglerlive does — I wouldn’t know anything about anything without Flaglerlive but there must be reasons that our so-called representatives make the kind of decisions that they do. They can’t be that stupid. Aren’t they embarrassed?

  3. WAKE UP says:

    Where do they get their prices ?…Copper is $3.35 /lb …NOT $11.00/lb
    I guess its like everything else in this county..OVER INFLATED !!!

  4. tulip says:

    Palm Coast has made it’s share of bad financial decisions, in the past year or so the BOCC had made some bad financial decisions and now Bunnell has joined the group by accepting the “gift” of the old courthouse without some hard investigation into the actual cost of restoring this “prize” which they so eagerly accepted and profusely thanked the BOCC for, only to find they can’t afford it. What a county!

    And to think some of our tax rate is based on the decisions of these County and City leaders. Help!

  5. Louie says:

    All I ever can do is laugh at that City…..

  6. Dave Sullivan says:

    Tear it down, it’s a money pit. Sell the prime business location to a commercial business
    interest. Use the money from the sale of the property as a dowm payment on a
    New modern efficient City Hall. The current old City Hall has no special architectural
    significance, inadequate parking, and maintains the image of Bunnell being a backwater
    community. At some point the leadership of Bunnell must face reality.

    • Genie says:

      @ Dave Sullivan: So is the old hospital Chuimento unloaded on the citizens of Flagler County for our new Sheriff’s offices. It is an environmental nightmare.

      We have elected officials, administrators here making very bad decisions with dwindling taxpayer money.

    • Charles Gardner says:

      The county placed use restrictions on the property. The city can’t tear it down.

  7. Dennis McDonald says:

    The Taxpayers of Flagler County Can sell Bunnell an old hospital for $1.23 Million whenever Mayor Robinson realizes that County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin representing Bunnell/District 4 handed her a bag with a wet bottom.

    Focus on the numbers and keep the rose colored glasses in your pocket.

    Dennis McDonald

  8. T says:

    The City is currently occupying County offices rent free. What is the City doing with all of the rent payment savings?

  9. JtFlagler says:

    I agree with Dave Sullivan. Tear it down and sell the property to some commercial enterprise. That way the city is making money on the land sale and adding to its tax list.

  10. Genie says:

    This entire county is a money pit thanks to our current County Commission, Administrator and a few high dollar land owners. We serve at their pleasure.

  11. LoProfile says:

    Agree with Dave Sullivan and Lin. Sell it at a bargain basement price and get the property on the tax rolls.

  12. Thank you FlaglerLive for keeping me up to date and sometimes beyond…
    a minor correction in the scheme of things :Those of use ‘users’ of the Plantation Bay Utility just received an approx. 48% increase in rates to cover the costs which are being incurred by Bunnell/Flagler County to ‘improve’ the less than desirable water which we were advised was fast approaching a potentially disasterous situation.
    The old Hospital and old Courthouse should either be rehabbed or gutted to the ground as soon as possible…. Neither building, in their current states is contributing to the asthetic appearance of the area nor is their condition improving surrounding property values. We want to grow new businesses in Flagler County and increase our economic well being . Whatever, however, I hope that the county and city consider the high unemployment rate we have and do what they can, at the least possible expense, to make Flagler County as inviting as possible for positive growth… pointing fingers in all directions and at each other won’t get anyone anywhere…. Tear down or fix up – make that decision the sooner the better for all….

  13. The decision was made to put out a request for proposal (RFP) for bids to remediate, rehab, refurbish or whatever needs to be done to make this a usable building. Who is going to write the RFP? What will the RFP contain? Is it possible to write an RFP that would cover everything that needed to be covered for a potential bidder to submit an intelligent response for this project? In my opinion the RFP should be for a complete design and build. An RFP should require the responder to provide detailed specifications and drawings of the existing structure including floor plans. It should require detailed specifications and floor plan for alteration for city use.
    Any firm wanting to bid on a project like this would need to know the history and detail of the original construction of the existing buildings. This building has a lot of flaws. The Flagler County’s sheriff’s office found it unsuitable for use and purchased the old hospital instead. Randall Morris presented some history of the old courthouse and how it was constructed. Flaws in the original construction had to be addressed when the Annex was constructed. All of the information presented by Mr. Morris was left with the city clerk. Any firm wanting to bid on a project such as this would need that information.
    Responding to an RFP is a time consuming and costly undertaking for firms expressing interest in any given project. Would any firm be willing to respond to an RFP and bid on a project such as such as this knowing that the city does not have, and may not be able to obtain, the funds to pay for the construction?
    The idea of using only the first floor, or part of the first floor, for city offices and mothballing the remainder of the building should not be considered as a viable option.
    Even after remediation (mold, mildew, lead, asbestos and unknowns), demolition and rehabilitation/remodeling: would this building be suitable for the city’s use. It might be more feasible to build a new City Hall designed specifically for the city’s use to include space for all city offices including the police department. Even that would require financing which may not be available to the city.
    The Flagler County school board has a similar situation with the Technical Center on Palm Coast Parkway at Corporate Drive. Flaglerlive had an article about this property complete with a link to the appraisal report that was completed for the school board. I recommend interested parties read that article and the appraisal report.
    There are more pressing needs such as the upgrade of the city’s water treatment facility. As one resident pointed out the streets in the city are in bad need of repaving. The city has recently undertaken inclusions of PEP systems within the city’s utility system which will lead to unknown future costs.
    Bottom line, in my opinion, is the building is not worth rehabilitation. It has a larger square foot area than needed by the city. There are restrictions (placed by the county) on renting out part of the building to other users. The city does not have the money for this project.

  14. Bunnell Citizen says:

    I strongly agree Mr. Gardner. The City and the County have been spending like they won the lotto, and not thinking about the future at all. The court house is not worth saving at all. People are saying, it needs to be saved because it’s a “Historical Building”, there are older buildings in Flagler County then it, and that are in better shape. As far as the old hospital, that was a shady deal that the County slipped in there without the citizens knowing. It would be very interesting to know who made the profit off of that.

    And “T”, the City does pay rent to the County for using their offices.

  15. A.S.F. says:

    Kind of slow on the uptake, aren’t they?

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