The Flagler County Commission today approved a $21 million, 51,000 square-foot Sheriff’s Operations Center and directed its administration to move ahead with design and construction. But questions remain unanswered about the project’s financing, which was not presented to the commission today, and its ultimate cost, which nears $23 million when financing it over 15 years is included.
The county may also be relying on a false assumption by County Administrator Jerry Cameron: that it could bond its sales surtax dollars to finance the project when in fact, it may not. The county may possibly secure a commercial loan to do so, though it’s not clear whether it may finance the loan with the surtax revenue. The surtax ordinance precludes the use of revenue “for the payment of debt.”
It’s been two and a half years since the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office vacated its Operations Center off State Road 100 in Bunnell, a 27,000 square foot facility it paid $7 million to buy and renovate and occupied for less than three years before employee sicknesses they attributed to the building forced an exit.
For a while it looked as if a new operations center would go up next to the public library in Palm Coast, only for the county–the sheriff’s landlord–to junk that plan and opt for a parcel south of the Government Services Building instead. The original projection was for a $12 to $15 million building.
Today, the architect and general contractor hired for the project unveiled the design of the planned operations center at a commission meeting, with an actual price: nearly $21 million, possibly more.
Construction cost is projected at $19 million–$368 per square foot–which includes a $1.4 million saving, and a $2 million contingency allowance. The architectural and engineering fee adds $1.1 million, furniture and equipment adds $700,000. The price of an additional 6,300-square foot building to house the agency’s logistics and purchasing is not included, and is not disclosed, but would likely increase the cost past $21 million. That’s without financing, which will be necessary since the county can’t pay the cost up front.
“As you start adding the numbers up, if you’re going to get a usable sheriff’s office building for Flagler County, it’s going to cost $30 million if you think about it,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan said. (In fact, a schedule of the loan with interest puts the cost of the project, with interest, at $22.85 million.)
Even without the financing cost, the increased base cost will add pressure on the county’s finances, which are already stressed, and on the commission to continue exploring new sources of revenue.
Commissioners seemed oblivious to the cost until, well into the presentation, Sullivan raised the matter. “One of the main reasons we’re having the meeting here today is to talk about how much this is going to cost,” Sullivan said. I haven’t heard a lot about how we’re actually going to finance this building.” He wanted an analysis of the impact on the budget the commission approved just two months ago.
“This would be a $20 million bond, and we would anticipate that we could come in within that,” County Administrator Jerry Cameron said. “If we missed it by a few hundred thousand dollars, we do have the reserves that would accommodate that. But bond would be serviced by non-[property tax] revenues, primarily the sales tax.” He said it would be a 15-year bond.
Sullivan reminded Cameron–who is retiring later this year–that the sales tax “doesn’t go on forever.”
“It does if you say it does, sir,” Cameron said. “That’s a board decision.”
Cameron is right about the board’s vote: the board–with five different members–voted in 2012, by supermajority, to impose the sales surtax for 20 years, when it failed to get agreement with Palm Coast to seek voter approval for it.
But Cameron was wrong about bonding: a sales tax unilaterally imposed by the commission, as opposed to through a vote of residents, means the revenue may not be bonded. The commission’s own 2012 sales surtax ordinance makes that explicit: “no revenues hereunder are to be pledged for servicing bonded indebtedness or for the payment of debt.” (“It’s what you don’t know that always complicates things,” Cameron said during the same discussion about financing, but he wasn’t referring to the county’s bonding authority.)
Cameron may have been confusing the financing scheme, calling it a bond when it may be a bank loan. The financing was not presented to commissioners, but, he said, “that’s all been taken care of by finance, we’ll be bringing that before you shortly.”
In 2004, Flagler voters approved a $33 million bond to build a replacement for the courthouse built in 1926, what would eventually be called the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center and cost nearly $40 million. (A state audit in 2009 documented the cost overruns.) Another bond and special tax revenue accounted for the $32 million that built, in part, the 125,000-square-foot Government Services Building–the county carried $14.6 million of the cost, the school board 11.1 million–and the Emergency Operations Center some 15 years ago.
The new Sheriff’s Operations Center will go up on Commerce Parkway, which links State Road 100 on the east side of Bunnell to the Government Services Building complex, and is projected to be a four-lane bypass around Bunnell, to U.S. 1.
Contractors and the county are attributing the significantly higher costs of the proposed building to a series of factors–inflation, code change requirements, “changing marketplace conditions for materials and labor costs,” according to the presentation to county commissioners today, among those reported “material shortages” and “availability of skilled and non-skilled labor.” The ground at the location “might not be so great as we heard,” Sheriff Rick Staly said. The soil is looser than expected and will need an additional 3 feet of fill because of the high water table. Water intrusion was among the problems plaguing the previous operations center site.
“We have an escalation factor,” Lon Newman operations manager said. “For the last couple of years, the market has been going about, construction cost, about half a percent a month, is what things have been increasing, so we have that factor in there.”
Winter Haven-based Architect Design Group’s Susan Gantt, a senior vice president with the firm, presented the project to the commission. Her company designed 350 public safety projects in 38 states, many of them police or sheriff’s facilities, many of them co-located with other public safety agencies, among them the Orlando and Boyton Beach Police departments.
A space study commissioned by the sheriff had identified a need for 81,000 square feet. That didn’t align with the budget. The architects brought the space down to 51,000 square feet–still almost twice as large as the former operations center. Purchasing and logistics will not be in the same, main building, since it doesn’t have to comply with the same hardening standards. With population growth ahead, there’ll be pressure to expand space for the investigations division. The building design will accommodate future growth at either end of the building.
“We don’t want any mold,” Commissioner Greg Hansen told the architects archly, a reference to the former operations center’s troubles. That building came to be known as “Mold-Ops.” The contractor assured the commission that the new air-handling system will ensure against the bane that made the former operations center unlivable.
Newman said the cost of the cooling system might be higher up front, but would be more efficient in the long run.
No one discussed the two-and-a-half-year span between the sheriff’s exit from the former building and today’s presentation, which still leaves ground-breaking to a later date. The sheriff, as one of the constitutional officers in the county, is at the mercy of the county commission for space needs. He can provide input about space needs and geographical locations, but it’s ultimately the county’s responsibility to provide space, build structures and pay for them. The timeline is also the county’s doing.
“I think we need to get into second and third gear,” Charlie Ericksen, the former county commissioner, told the commission in his first public comment since stepping down from the commission after eight years.
Somehow Cameron told commissioners that “the sheriff will owe me lunch. He didn’t believe that we’d accomplish that on schedule.”
“I will very willingly and gladly evict myself from all these other buildings when it’s done,” Staly told commissioners.