The Flagler County Commission, its members angered by or resigned to a decision they did not want to make, voted on Monday to take back possession of the old county courthouse from Bunnell and appoint a committee to recommend by October what to do with the building. In the meantime, the county will again pick up the $60,000 to $80,000-a-year tab of maintaining the building to keep it from deteriorating more than it already has.
The Bunnell City Commission had voted to take ownership of the building last November. But it did so without fully inspecting the building, and on the recommendations—or faith—of a city manager whom the commission had fired a month earlier. In April, the Bunnell commission voted 4-1 to return the building to the county. Two factors combined to convince Bunnell to reverse course. The first was witnessing firsthand the extent of the building’s interior damage and its leaky roof. The second was its new city manager’s calculations that the city had no money to afford even limited repairs and renovations to the courthouse without going bankrupt.
The county has maintained that while the building needed repairs, its structure overall was sound, while concerns about its structural integrity, asbestos, mold or led paint were “not supported by the professional analyses we have received to fate,” according to an administrative memo.
On Monday, the county commission, to its administrator’s dismay, voted to 3-2 to take back the building and place its fate in the hands of a committee, with Barbara Revels, Nate McLaughlin and Charlie Ericksen providing the majority. Earlier in the day, the county had shown its displeasure with Bunnell by giving it an ultimatum to vacate county office space in two months or start paying rent–and vacate the spaces by December regardless.
County Administrator Craig Coffey had proposed five options on the courthouse, none of which the commission endorsed—yet. His first option was to not take the building back. The second option was to take it but then immediately attempt to sell it as is. The third option was to take it back and demolish it in whole or in part. The fourth, to redevelop it for governmental and non-profit uses. The fifth was to redevelop it for a combination of private and institutional uses.
“It’s one of these things where I’m very uncomfortable with it, I’m very hurt by it that I was deceived,” Commission Chairman George Hanns said, explaining his dissenting vote in terms unusual both for their personal and angry tone. “That’s my nature, if you burn me, a lot of people can show disrespect and do things, but if you personally hurt me, I don’t forget that. If the board approves this, even if I don’t agree, I will do everything a board should do to support what we have to do.”
Commissioner Frank Meeker would have gone with the first option. “I don’t see a need to accept this property back,” he said. He also voted against the motion to take possession again. “I don’t think we need to be involved in it anymore at this point in time. It’s not our building anymore.”
But it was Barbara Revels, the only commissioner who can call herself a native of Flagler County, who spoke most strongly—both in reprimand of Bunnell’s flip-flop and in defense of taking the building back.
“That’s why I have a big problem with speaking on this issue, is the fact that emotionally, I’m very upset that the city begged for, asked for, took this building with great plans, and then proceeded immediately to turn the air conditioners off, allow it to continue to leak, never tour it before we did the transfer. One of their city commissioners sat on a committee with this county for years after we vacated the building with commissioner Holland while they worked on all the details of that building”—she was referring to Elbert Tucker—“full knowledge o0f everything in that building, all the plans that were drawn by Strollo [and Associates, the architectural firm], all of the investigations that we had done, full knowledge of all of that, and so it’s unconscionable to me that the city could take this building and let happen to it what has happened to it, and then go on public radio and tell the world that ‘we went in and we all got really sick,’ and to further decline the thought process as Mr. Coffey says as far as the opinion that people will have. I know you can clean the building up, I know that we could easily go back in and—I wouldn’t say easily, it’ll be costly—but go back in and take care of those issues. However, I just think that to be as good a neighbor as we’ve talked about, taking them in, housing them at the GSB, all the other things that we’ve done with them, free engineering for I don’t know how many projects, for them to repay us this way by doing this to this building—I mean if they got it and they found out right away, this is a problem, he needed to come right down the hall to Craig Coffey we’ve discovered, we don’t think we have the finances, and we don’t think we can keep this going. What do we do. But that wasn’t done that way. Instead it was all done in the public, in the press, and not brought to us as it would have been nice to sit down and do.”
Revels was mischaracterizing the issue to some extent by not taking into account the internal politics that crippled the Bunnell city administration from doing what Revels thought it should have done. The Bunnell commission took over the old courthouse in fall when it was in the midst of a messy transition from City Manager Armando Martinez to Larry Williams. Williams had made clear early on that acquisition of the building was not wise, at least not before the city had time to assess the building more fully. Williams made that position clear in November, before the commission’s vote to accept the building, and at the risk of losing his job.
It was not until March, when a city commission election results meant that Williams’s position was secure, that the commission itself felt secure to endorse his recommendation—which was to give back the building, because the city could not afford even the small scale repairs and renovations that Revels and Coffey concede must be made to the building. Martinez, Williams’s predecessor, had embraced the building acquisition virtually sight unseen, with little regard either to the building’s conditions or, as it turns out—judging from Williams’s assessment of the books—to the city finances’ conditions.
Revels was unquestionably right, however, about the Bunnell City Commission’s prevarications—or rather, about one commissioner’s prevarications: Elbert Tucker, the same commissioner Revels referred to as having been on the joint committee with the county a few years ago. Tucker in November voted to accept the building, and by April, as the city’s finances crystallized unmercifully, had changed his mind. But all along, Bunnell could not have afforded to maintain the upkeep on the building anymore than, as Williams argued repeatedly, it could afford to maintain the upkeep going forward, before a final solution for the structure was devised.
A dozen members of the public addressed the county commission Monday on the courthouse, providing a range of ideas but mostly support for keeping the building in government’s hands, and ensuring that its future be central to the redevelopment of Bunnell, either as a government and non-profit center or as a business and cultural destination. The majority of those who spoke were from the courthouse issue’s central casting, recurring in their roles as courthouse advocates before whatever panel was debating the issue, with a few notable exceptions. Among them: Ky Ekinci, owner of Office Divvy, the Palm Coast business incubator and start-up accelerator, who in a surprise revelation, spoke of his firm’s planned $1 million expansion to a yet-to-be-determined central location in the next 18 to 24 months. “We are looking at this particular structure, beautiful structure, as a possible move for our company,” Ekinci said, as “a stand-alone attraction in Central Florida, something as close to a Silicon Valley contained in a building.” He added: “We do believe this can be a destination that harbors all things creative, all things technology, all things digital.”
Sisco Deen, the Flagler County Historical Society’s archivist, batted off notions that the courthouse is not a historic building. Hutch King, the former county commissioner and a West Side resident, told the commission that it would bankrupt Bunnell if the county did not take back the building. And John Rogers, the only Bunnell city official—he is a city commissioner who never voted to accept the building—to address the commission, lavished a little flattery on Revels, telling her that she had the right idea for the building’s future. “If anybody can pull it off, you can,” Rogers said.
The only questions remaining are who will be part of the committee, and how many members wills serve on that committee. The county is already accepting applications. The committee’s scope will be set down at the commission’s June 2 meeting, and its members appointed on June 16.
“I don’t think it’s beneficial to the county to take the building back while the blue-ribbon committee is doing the work,” Meeker said, trying one last time to delay the re-acquisition of the courthouse. “I’d love to see the blue ribbon committee formed, come up with some recommendations, and then, once we look at the recommendations, and if it makes sense for the county to take it back, at that time, OK, fine, we take it back.”
“Commissioner Meeker we have got to get it insured and we’ve got to turn the air conditioning back on,” Revels said. “We’ve got to stop the deterioration that’s been allowed to occur.”
“So now I’ve got to go back to spending money on running the AC and the electrical,” Meeker says.
The commission agreed to limit the committee’s work to four months. The committee will not determine what will be done with the building but submit recommendations. The commission will finally decide how to proceed.