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No Thanks: Bunnell Votes 4-1 to Return Old Courthouse to the County, Citing Costs and Liabilities

| April 15, 2014

Bunnell doesn't want it after all. (c FlaglerLive)

Bunnell doesn’t want it after all. (c FlaglerLive)

Less than five months after proudly accepting ownership of the old Flagler County Courthouse as the anchor to the city’s civic and economic revitalization, the Bunnel City Commission Monday evening voted 4-1 to return the building to the county commission. The stunning reversal culminates months of doubt and disappointment about the building on city officials’ part as they discovered a structure in more serious disrepair than the county had let on—from a leaky roof to mold to absent wiring—and tallied far more expensive bills ahead than the city could afford, if it were to keep the building.

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“As your city manager, I recommend that the smart thing to do now is to give it back to the county and let’s start going down a different avenue,” Larry Williams told commissioners before the vote. “I do not think we can afford this. I think it was understating how we would have to raise taxes to pay for this.” Commissioners Bill Baxley, Elbert Tucker, John Rogers and Bonita Robinson, serving in her very first city commission meeting after her March election win, voted to return the courthouse. Mayor Catherine Robinson dissented. (“I still feel like we didn’t have all the facts and figures to make the decision,” Robinson said.)

The rejection is an indication of how far the political pendulum has shifted in Bunnell, where just last year, under a different city manager (Armando Martinez) the courthouse acquisition was all but taken for granted. Martinez’s firing and the March election, which ratified and solidified the political shift that led to his dismissal, along with the new finance director’s analyses of the city’s dire balance sheets, buttressed commissioners’ will to revers course. The rejection also again puts the old courthouse’s fate in doubt as neither city nor county want to bear its financial liability. The county spent close to $1 million either for repairs or to maintain the building since it was vacated eight years ago.

“I am very disappointed,” County Commissioner Barbara Revels said. “While I have not seen the reports Bunnell commissioned I felt Flagler County had studied the building extensively and was comfortable that it was worth rehabilitating.” Future uses of the building will depend on who may be interested in it, though it’s likely that a cost-benefit approach will be part of the county’s calculations, Revels said. “But it is a shame so much time has been wasted since the City asked to own it all.”

Baxley tried to stop the city from acquiring the building in November, then led the charge to return it since. He was critical of the county for essentially dumping the building on the city, after itself finding that it would not house the new sheriff’s headquarters there. “They spent almost $1 million in trying to figure out how to do it, and they never could come up with a solution, never could put anything online, so that they could make this building operable, so they could use it and quit going in the red on it,” Baxley said. “So the next best thing they could do is let’s get rid of it. So where did they get rid of it? Bunnell. And our pocketbok is nowhere near what the county’s is, and there’s no way we can afford to do this building.”

Tucker said the city has no money to accomplish repairs. “I haven’t changed my mind since the last meeting, except for perhaps getting the county agree to give us an unrestricted deed to this building so that we may have some more options,” Tucker said. “At the moment our options are very limited as to what we can do with the building.” He estimated that Bunnell would have to increase its taxes by 30 percent to shoulder the burden of the courthouse repairs. Tucker is not interested in raising taxes to that end.

“I agree with Mr. Tucker, we can’t afford it,” Williams said. “You can’t get the price low enough where we can afford it. I don’t think any of us sitting up here knew that there was a mold and mildew problem that existed in that building. I don’t think any of us up here knew that that thing leaked the way it did,” and it seems every time that Mick and I go bak there, there’s more leaks. We definitely didn’t expect leaks coming in the hallway the last time we were there, because it didn’t leak there before.” Mick Cuthbertson is the city’s community development director. The potential for employee lawsuits over mold and other potential sick-building-syndrome issues would be prohibitively expensive for the city, Williams said.

Cuthbertson analyzed the roof-repair option as one example of the maze of difficulties the city would have to navigate. It’s a rubber roof—cheap to install, but leaky and prone to frequent breakdowns. Replacing it would cost $600,000 to $650,000. But the annex roof was installed in 2007, the old courthouse portion’s roof was installed in 2009, too recently to replace entirely. Despite being relatively new, “they leak,” Cuthbertson said. While no one is recommending a complete re-roofing, he could not find a warranty on the new roofing jobs the county commissioned in 2007 and 2009. That means continued repairs down the line, though for now the county has been shouldering those costs.

For Bunnell, the end of the courthouse option means the city’s offices must continue to squat around the city until a different option emerges. Some of those offices are at the county’s and school board’s Government Services Building. The county commission has been losing patience with Bunnell’s presence in those spaces. Michael Barr, a member of the committee Williams delegated to study the city’s courthouse options, seized on that issue to remind commissioners that regardless of where or how the city plans to have its own offices, it will have to find new money to pay for those offices—just as it would if it were to occupy portions of the old courthouse.

Barr, who has business interests in Bunnell, and developer Mark Langello, another member of the committee, have been pushing hard to keep the courthouse in Bunnell’s hands, and advocated to that end Monday. Langello said he’s not wedded to the old courthouse, but that returning it was premature, as hard numbers outlining precisely what it would cost the city to occupy still have not been crunched. But it was an indication of how far the city commission had soured on the building that despite lengthy presentations and comments by Barr and Langello, the commissioners had no questions and no comment for them. But Charles Gardner, the Bunnell appraiser and another member of the committee, spoke in favor of Williams’s position.

More than a half-dozen additional people—some of them Bunnell residents, some not—addressed the commission, most of them against the acquisition. “If this was good for the county the county would be holding on to it, they would not be giving it to Bunnell,” Hutch King, the former county commissioner said. “It’s a money pit, guys.”

Pete Young, a Bunnell resident, a former Bunnell city commissioner and a current state trooper, said: “If anybody in this room would love to have the courthouse, it would be me, because I have a lot of history in that courthouse. I was sworn in 40 years ago as a law enforcement officer by Zep Edmunson, in that courthouse. I was married, I got my marriage certificate in that courthouse. I adopted my two daughters in that courthouse. So if anybody would love to keep that courthouse, it would be me. I live here in Bunnell. But, when I was a commissioner, I was all excited about occupying that courthouse, at least being partners with the county, and that’s what I thought we were going to be, is partners with the county, and hopefully maybe partners with Palm Coast and Flagler Beach.” He said the city should give the building back, “start all over,” but turn the courthouse into a countywide project, essentially supported by the county and all its cities.

Tucker, the commissioner, summed up the commission majority’s position moments before the vote. Tucker had voted in November to accept the building. “I made a mistake when I made a motion to accept that,” Tucker said. “If I knew then what I know now, I would not have accepted the courthouse.” He said the building will always be a money pit.

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19 Responses for “No Thanks: Bunnell Votes 4-1 to Return Old Courthouse to the County, Citing Costs and Liabilities”

  1. m&m says:

    Good choice Bunnell.. It would have been a money pit.. Maybe the county could move back in and get rid of the money pit hey’re in.

  2. Steve Wolfe says:

    The county commissioners knew it was a money pit. Even a cursory glance gives that impression. Wasn’t the courthouse a gift to sweeten the pot for the old hospital purchase? And who wants to see whether the hospital building is a dump, too? I think that’s a great follow up topic for Flagler Live.

  3. Smart thinking says:

    Now the county needs to keep our money in their pocket and put the Sheriff’s operation center in the old courthouse rather than invest in the old hospital. The Sheriff belongs in the old courthouse anyway—the building is already there!!! Use it!!!!

    • Wolley Segap says:

      my prediction is the next thing we’ll be told is that the old hospital will have to be knocked down due to its condition and a new building needs to be built. Who made money on the sale of that property other than its owners? Its the only reason I can think of as to why that property was jammed down the taxpayers throats when otherr options were available.

  4. Wolley Segap says:

    If then county commission felt the building was worth rehabilitating, why was it no longer an option for the Sheriffs Office? Why was a building that is almost beyond repair offered up instead? The county had the old courthouse….but they had to purchase a dilapidated hospital building. Why?

    • David says:

      Such a valid point. Someone needs to answer as to why they didn’t use the money spent on the old hospital ( picture appears next to the word money pit in the dictionary) to repair the Courthouse. It seems that it would have been the ideal resolution.

    • Really? says:

      “because it politics man, politics”

  5. Jan Reeger says:

    The County did not dump the Courthouse on Bunnell. They WANTED it. They BEGGED for it. They rejected other ideas for housing of city offices in Bunnell. Now, they need to get creative and find a viable way to make it work.

  6. confidential says:

    Because they use other people’s money and on top we pay them close to 50,000 a year to goof up big. Can’t even imagine how many additional perks form appreciative developers.

  7. Dennis McDonald says:

    The reality of a 50,000 square foot building for a small City of 2700 residents has been recognized by the Bunnell City Commission. These commissioners did a quick turn around on a money pit delivered by former BOCC Chairman McLaughlin.
    The question to ask on the condition of the HISTORIC Old Court House is how does a County asset get in this condition ? Would we as individuals who build a new home and leave our former residence to fall into such disrepair ? Conclusion…We have the wrong people at the wheel and these same people are going to oversee the jail and sheriffs projects ? Hold on to your wallets !
    As a final consideration we need to ask how did we arrive at this waste of Our tax dollars. My opinion after participating in the public process is that certain commissioners wanted to remove the Old Court House from consideration as a Sheriffs HQ. so that the Old Hospital could be inserted as a prime option. At the August 2013 Workshop meeting where after 4 hours of debate mostly all was about the Old Hospital. It was obvious by one hour into this workshop which way this was going. At around five PM they called a special meeting of the BOCC and bought the Old Hospital for $1,230,000. To say that this was a stupid move to buy more uninhabitable Bunnell square footage is being kind. When I weeks later inquired of McLaughlin the reasoning when we already owned and spent over a half million to use the Old Court House he told me “that building is a liability, we need to get rid of it”. If it was a liability we should have put it up For Sale “as is” but never have given it to Bunnell who has NO financial ability to shoulder a 50,000 square foot renovation.
    Put this property in the private sector where it would be on the Tax Roll and not sucking the public dry.

    Dennis McDonald

  8. Smart thinking says:

    It’s called politics and the good ol boys network. Chiumento and company had to get their pockets full before the reduced tax rate could be detected and this wonderful choice of putting the Sheriff in the old courthouse could be realized after it was already given to the city. Why do you think Nate McLaughlin was campaigning so hard to get it off the county’s hands for his good buddy Jim Manfre who wants everyone to think he has no input? Exactly, it was to get his good buddy Jim Manfre in new digs at the old hospital site after the old courthouse got dumped on the city of Bunnell knowing the city couldn’t afford it. It makes alot of sense to get the new section of the old courthouse up and operational for Manfre. A whole lot more sense than it does to reconstruct the old hospital for Manfre. The longer Coffey and company lets it sit vavant and intentionally deterioriate the more it will cost to restore it. The county should have had a plan in place before they ever moved out of it!! Absolutely a waste.

    I sure am proud of our new Bunnell commissioner Bonita Robinson for being on the ball to know this was a bad move for the city, and to vote to return it to the county!! Now the county needs to get to work on putting Manfre in the new section in the back and tell Manfre to make it work—it doesnt matter if Manfre wants single level or not. People in hell want ice water.

  9. Bethechange says:

    How anyone born and raised in Florida cannot realize that an unairconditioned building here would not have mold issues may not be thinking clearly enough to hold an office which necessitates clear thinking!

  10. Bunnell Resident says:

    Tear it down! It has no value anymore. Even if it were historically significant you would think it would have been kept in good condition rather than allowed to fall into such disrepair. Build a new city hall in the same location. Move all city functions there and quit leasing crappy offices all over town. Plan some space for a few retail stores and an eating establishment or two and lease them out at a profit. Try to locate a few extra tenants such as any state or federal agencies needing local office space, again leasing to them at a profit. Steel Buildings can be very attractive and cost less per square foot than other types of new construction. Just my two cents….

  11. honkeydude says:

    If it looks like poo.
    Smells like poo.
    Why in the world would anyone want to take it for free and eat it?
    Just because its free doesn’t change what it is…

  12. Michelle says:

    The Building was rejected by FORMER Sheriff Fleming….. It has already been planned to give to the City when Sheriff Manfre came on-board. There is a lot of information missing about costs of restoration… some of the Commissioners at the City just did not want to hear it and Williams isn’t up to the challenge of finding grant monies that are out there, don’t care what he says about there not being any…there is, he is just not up to that challenge! The City should have hired the guy that got the votes (before they changed the rules) – young guy willing to grow with the City, up to challenges and not looking for the limelight!!!

  13. Joseph Pulitzer says:

    David O’Brien for Sheriff !!!!!

  14. KB63 says:

    Thank you City Commissioners for giving it back. In the years before they moved out the employees complained of allergies, asthma, etc. – it was a huge liability with health issues 10 years ago. Now it has sat empty for 7 (?) years. The County wasn’t interested in fixing anything in downtown Bunnell, they let a beautiful building go to waste. I do believe the purchase of the old hospital over the Courthouse is some kind of behind closed doors deal and someone put alot of money in their own pockets from it. None of it makes sense.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Meanwhile, I see six full size palm trees have been planted along the main entrance to the old building.
    Since when does an white elephant need six palm trees?

  16. confidential says:

    This is a historical Bunnell building. As far is my concern has been vandalized…for the status I saw it last time. Was in good shape and functioning.
    What about getting some grant for preservation has a historical and able functional structure?
    What about the one’s that have greatly benefitted in this county form a committee along with the local wealthy and raise the funds needed for its repairs and preservation? What they need to sell back to Chiumento, is the old hospital and not the beautiful vintage structure old court house! What about this county starting to hold some events to gather funds to repair “our old court house” and that will then promote the chances to receive some historical preservation grants! C’mon elected officials in this county!
    Have a little love for our roots borned in that court house!

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