A new county fire station for the west side and the complete replacement of Fire Station 92 at the county airport: $4 million. Upgrading the county’s emergency communications system: $9 to $18 million. Adding 13,000 square feet to the public library in Palm Coast: up to $2.2 million. Building a new library for the south side of the county: $3 to $4.2 million. Rebuilding the skate park at Wadsworth Park: up to $1.5 million. Renovating the old county courthouse, now that it’s back in the county’s possession, and a huge liability: up to $5 million. Improving the county fairgrounds: $1.5 million. Paving county roads: $2 million.
Those are just a few of the two dozen big ideas County Administrator Craig Coffey submitted to the county commission this week as potential projects the county could take on over the next several years, and pay for with the new revenue it is generating through the sales tax surplus the commission voted in, by super-majority, in November 2012.
The list doesn’t include two massive projects already being paid for with that revenue: the jail expansion, and the sheriff’s move into new headquarters at the old Memorial Hospital site in Bunnell. Those two projects will cost at least $21.4 million (by the administration’s estimate), and likely much more, since the jail expansion and renovation alone may cost close to $20 million.
“This is a pretty good snapshot, but I could really add another 10 or 20 projects if I wanted to. I hate to tell you that,” Coffey told commissioners on Monday. He cautioned that the cost estimates he attached to the projects are very rough at this point, and that the sales tax is not the only source of revenue that may be used for those projects.
Coffey’s intention: to get a sense from the commission of what projects it fancies most, so the administration can start prioritizing them and working on them. It was a sharp departure from previous recent years’ exercises, which saw the county, like most local governments, going through budgets for projects to cut, not to add.
“You don’t have to make a decision on any of this today,” Coffey told commissioners. “There’s nothing that’s beating down on your door. I’m going to offer you some suggestions to think about how to move forward on a few.”
The sales tax generates a little over $4 million a year, but the county’s portion is $2 million. So far, the county has taken in $3.4 million. The surtax is in place for 20 years. The money cannot be bonded, because the tax was not approved by voters at large, but the county has some financing capacity, so that, according to Coffey, “every $225,000 essentially finances about $3 million.”
Bottom line: after paying for the county jail and the new sheriff’s headquarters, the county commission would be left with just $6.9 million to $7.9 million to build with. That’s not much, considering the long wish list the administrator outlined. But it’s there.
“What I don’t want to do is do like we did with ESL,” Commissioner Barbara Revels said, referring to the Environmentally Sensitive Lands initiative funded by a special property tax voters approved twice. The initiative allows the county to buy and preserve environmentally sensitive land in the public domain. “We dove out, got ESL re-upped, spent a ton of it right of way, and so as much as all these things are needed and going to be needed, I hate to jump out right away.”
The West Side Fire Station is among the commission’s priorities as it will lower ambulances’ response time on the west side and reduce the number of times ambulances are tied up simultaneously across the county. “We could start down that road right now,” Coffey said.
Revels was struck by the cost attached to the project, which does not include the purchase of a new ambulance or fire equipment. “$1.5 million for a fire station size building is way too much money. That’s high,” Revels said.
“It depends if you have to buy land, it depends how much you have to fill,” Coffey said, speaking as if he already had his sight set on a particular property (and he reportedly does, on County Road 305 near the intersection with State Road 100).
Coffey also listed smaller projects such as improving parking at the Government Services Building ($750,000) and buying elections equipment for the Supervisor of Elections ($500,000 to $600,000), though grants could defer such costs.
But the projects that got particular attention were those related to the public library. One possibility is a 13,000 square foot addition to the existing Palm Coast library, which the library’s board of trustees is not recommending. Rather, the board favors building a new 16,000 to 20,000 square foot library somewhere in the vicinity of State Road 100, to answer the needs of some 20,000 library users.
“I would like to encourage you to at least go ahead on the library design,” Terri Jones, president of the Friends of the Library, said. “The Friends of the Library have always been very generous in supporting the library, and in that way supporting our community, and we’ve also provided a lot of items for the library throughout the years.” The sooner the county can secure the design, she continued, “the better it’ll be for us to go ahead and further raise funds for helping with this project, so I would really, really encourage you to do that as one of the top priorities.”
The commission was, if not committed to a new library, at least interested in exploring the possibility. Just last year, commissioners were wrestling with cutting library personnel’s hours and library hours themselves, to control their budget.
Revels favors going ahead with the design phase of such projects as a new branch library, an expansion to the Carver Center, formerly known as the Carver Gym, in Bunnell, the revamping of Wadsworth Park, and the “prototyping of a fire station,” as well as carrying out more pressing needs like sewer repairs at the Government Services Building. Once a project is designed, it can sit on a shelf, shopping for revenue sources, the administrator said.
In the end, commissioners decided to rank the projects individually over the next couple of weeks and turn them in for the administration to tally by the June 2 meeting. At that point the commission will presumably have a clearer idea of its priorities.