After holding up the Certificate of Occupancy for the new Operations Center on Commerce Boulevard this afternoon–it had been a four-and-a-half-year wait–Sheriff Rick Staly spoke of the long-time deputy who was driving by the building recently and stopped to investigate an open door and an alarm.
“I really think the curiosity and excitement just got to him and he just wanted to see the building,” Staly said, “because at that time, there was no alarm set.” A crowd of several hundred that had spread out in the plaza and parking lot front of the 51,600 square-foot building laughed. “But what he said speaks volumes to how much this building means to the employees and the future of the Sheriff’s Office. He told me that as a longtime employee of the Sheriff’s Office, and I quote, he never thought that in his career, we would have such a professional building to work from. So with that I say to our employees: welcome home.”
Groundbreaking on the $20 million building took place two years ago, two-and-a-half years into the agency’s nomadic existence, though as nomads go, it wasn’t quite the Sinai, but the very accommodating if cramped quarters at the Flagler County courthouse. It took some working out of tensions between Clerk of Court Tom Bexley and the County Commission, if not the sheriff, but everyone survived the arrangement.
“He did a great job of putting up with the sheriff,” County Commission Chairman Greg Hansen said. “I mean he had to house the sheriff, keep him happy and he did a great job. He was really a team member. He has served eviction notices already.”
Bexley was not in the crowd, which seemed to include almost every other elected official in the county and others who tried to be. But he texted his congratulations. “We at the Clerks Office are very happy this day has come. Full restoration of all our office space and a state of the art sheriffs office. A perfect example of necessity and desperation yielding a very desirable outcome,” he wrote, with his characteristic edge.
“But honestly,” he continued, “the residents and guests of Flagler County are the true beneficiaries of this long and arduous process. Kudos to Flagler County and Sheriff Staly for getting this one right!”
Another conspicuous absence: Jim Manfre, the former sheriff who seven years ago, with then-Gov. Rick Scott at his side, was dedicating the opening of the other Sheriff’s Operations Center off State Road 100, what came to be known as Mold Ops.
By 2018 sheriff’s employees, including detectives, were refusing to work in the building, citing illnesses often associated with sick-building syndrome. Inquiries revealed significant water intrusion and mold in different places around the building, eventually leading the sheriff to evacuate. Getting the agency back into a building took the county–which is responsible for providing accommodations to constitutional officers–about twice as long as originally promised, with some zigzagging between locations: for a time, the operations center was to go up next to the county public library on Palm Coast Parkway, until that turned out to be little more than a county ploy to get rid of a homeless camp there.
Today all the speeches were about teamwork and triumphs, ending an unhappy chapter in the county’s history.
“This building represents a milestone in the 105-year history of the sheriff’s office and sets the foundation for the delivery of professional law enforcement services to our community for decades,” Staly told the crowd, setting up his speech by first noting the lineup of two deputies on horseback, representing the origins of the agency before combustion engines, then a 1938 patrol car, then a modern one, and next to it a new motorcycle.
“This is a day to celebrate the reunification of our team,” he continued, “after four and a half years of working in cramped, borrowed and decentralized offices stretched across three buildings. Despite the working conditions, I want to commend our resilient team that delivered a 54 percent reduction in crime since 2017.”
It was a brisk ceremonies, the speeches from Hansen, from Lon Neuman of Ajax Corp., the general contractor, and from Susan Gantt of Architect Design Group of Winter Park, kept to a couple of minutes each before Staly’s somewhat longer sum-up and his invitation to everyone to take tours organized by his deputies. He was himself going to lead the first tour of elected officials and a few other chosen ones, including Dan Newlin, whom he’d hired as a deputy years ago in Orange County and who now is an injury attorney flying high enough to have made the trip from Orange County to Flagler in his own helicopter. And unlike anyone else, who’d be required to land a craft at the airport, he somehow managed to get clearance to land at the county’s Emergency Operations Center, a short walk from the new Operations Center (he got a courtesy ride there).
What visitors would see inside, immediately after that whiff of new-building smell, is a a facility that feels as roomy as the courthouse once did, when it opened over a decade and a half ago. Many offices and spaces are marked for future assignments, since there’s not enough personnel to use them just yet. “You don’t want to move into a building and all of a sudden you’ve maxed it out,” Staly said.
The county will keep growing, he said, and those spaces will be needed, though the building is also designed to accommodate two additions, one of 10,000 square feet, another of 20,000 square feet. And a 6,000 square foot storage building for the purchasing and supply units, and for storing specialty vehicles, is under construction for an additional $1.3 million.
The two-level building is “full of firsts,” the sheriff said. It has the northeast’s first Faraday room–a metal, safe-like room the size of a couple of closets that will keep electronic devices seized from suspects from being accessed remotely, their data tampered with or erased. Its locker rooms for men and women have showers for the first time, to go with a large gym where some $75,000 worth of gym equipment was donated. Its walls and glass are all bullet-proof. Its construction is resistant to hurricanes greater than Category 4. It has its own full-house generator. Even its interrogation rooms are soundproof.
That’s why the sheriff was comfortable calling it, almost Buzz Aldrin style, “a giant step forward in the history and future for the office of sheriff in Flagler County.”
The building’s evidence room has its own ventilation system to pot smells don’t waft all over the place. The Real Time Crime Center, once a closet, is now a roomy, futuristic-looking suite with a “war room,” in the Sheriff’s words, that allows deputies and detectives to follow anything developing in the field in real time, down to the live feeds from deputies’ body cameras, from school hallways, from city parks and from streets and avenues. There’s also an armory, for replacement weapons. “We’re not a gun store, but we have to have extras,” the sheriff said. And there’s a vehicle evidence processing bay.
Much of the building is standard office space: cubicles, break areas, conference rooms, offices for supervisory staff. The administration’s suite on the second floor is especially secure, accessible only with certain electronic keys. The sheriff’s own office is the same size as it was in the old operations center, reproducing some of the same displays but with a few more accumulated since Staly became sheriff.
One of the portraits he keeps on his desk is that of Mel Coleman, the late sheriff in Orange County who’d hired Staly as a deputy there, and after whom he models his leadership. Coleman, he said, had transformed the Orange County Sheriff’s Office from into the modern, accredited and professional operation it became as the city grew. “That’s my goal, is to set the standard for a professional law enforcement agency,” Staly said.