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Palm Coast Thursday, May 16, 2019 1 month ago

County seeks new space for FCSO employees, prepares for litigation over mold-ridden facility

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The Sheriff's Office's staff was displaced from the FCSO's Operations Center because of a mold problem. The county bought another building for it. That building has mold as well.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

County workers preparing the former Sears building for occupancy by Flagler County Sheriff’s Office employees — who’ve been displaced from their Operations Center for almost a year because of mold problems — found water pouring down the walls during a recent rainstorm. When they pulled out the sheetrock, it was blackened with mold.

“That puts us back at square one on all the space operational issues, between the Operations Center and the District Two operations office,” Sheriff Rick Staly said. 

The county, which is legally obligated to provide facilities for its Sheriff’s Office, had hoped that the former Sears building on Palm Coast Parkway would solve one of those problems for the FCSO while somewhat alleviating the other. 

Problem 1: Currently, the FCSO has its Palm Coast office in a rented space in City Marketplace. But the owner of the shopping center is raising the rent, prompting the FCSO to look for space elsewhere. The county bought a former Wachovia Bank building, off Old Kings Road, with the intention of making that into the Palm Coast precinct office, and the FCSO told the owner of City Marketplace that the agency wouldn’t be renewing its lease. But then it turned out that the Wachovia building had serious structural issues, and the county couldn’t easily ready it for occupation by the FCSO’s Palm Coast staff. Meanwhile, the FCSO’s lease at City Marketplace ended Dec. 31, and it’s been renting on a month-to-month basis since. 

Problem 2: The bulk of the FCSO’s staff operate out of Bunnell and have been displaced from the Sheriff’s Operations Center since last June, when the building was evacuated because of mold problems. The old building had initially been a hospital, then sat vacant for years before the county bought it and renovated it for the sheriff. Employees began getting sick, with more than 30 filing worker’s compensation claims before the evacuation. Now, they’re divided between the jail administrative building and the county courthouse, where they’re packed in “like sardines,” according to the sheriff, and are competing with county Clerk of Court Tom Bexley’s staff for space.

County Commissioners have a longterm solution for both of those problems: They’ve approved the construction of a large, permanent Palm Coast FCSO branch office on county-owned land next to the public library on Palm Coast Parkway. It will replace the Palm Coast precinct office and also contain command staff who’d previously occupied the Operations Center. 

But it will take a couple of years to build, so the county needed an interim solution. That was supposed to be the Sears building

The county had initially bought it for $1.1 million for use as a Tax Collector’s Office branch location, then realized the Tax Collector had less need for it than the sheriff.

“While it was not a perfect solution for District 2 in the interim period, it was the best for the taxpayer at that time,” Staly said. “Obviously, now we know that whole purchase was not a good purchase at the time by the then-county administrator,” Craig Coffey, Jerry Cameron’s predecessor.

And now it won’t be occupied for any county use: The damage is too serious.

“There’s no way I’m going to let my employees go from one mold-infested building to another one,” Staly said. “It was the right decision by the county to thoroughly check that building, and certainly the right decision that the building is no longer suited for use.”

‘SIGNIFICANT WATER INTRUSION’

County Administrator Jerry Cameron was notified of the problem earlier this week, when employees shot a cell phone video of water streaming down an interior wall there during a rainstorm. 

“I didn’t want to fall into the trap of determining if we were going to drill a hole in the wall,” he said. The county, before Cameron took over as administrator in February, had been through a months-long dispute about whether, where and how to open up the Operations Center to check for mold, before ultimately doing so and finding it. So, on May 15, Cameron ordered employees to remove sheetrock in the Sears building in three places.

“We … identified a place in the roof that had a hole that was pouring water down between the walls,” Cameron said. “They actually had water running across the floor.”

Later that day, he notified the county’s five county commissioners, writing in his weekly situation awareness report, “As of today, our General Services staff discovered significant water intrusion in the walls of the Sears Building resulting in the rusting out of the bottom plate of the metal stud wall as well as substantial mold growth. This property was inspected prior to purchase by Universal Engineering and these deficiencies were not noted. Staff has concluded that this has been a long term problem which would have resulted in water running out onto the showroom floor during rain storm events.”

The rust showed that the damage wasn’t recent, he said in an interview. “It’s been a problem for a long long time. … We’re talking years. You can track the path of the water from the defective gutter that’s had a hole that’s been previously patched.”

Universal Engineering Sciences is one of multiple companies with which the county has a “continuing service” contract. That means the firm is “vetted and pre-approved for use when a need arises,” according to county Public Information Office Julie Murphy. It had also inspected the Sheriff's Operations Center building on State Road 100, Cameron said.

Universal not only made no reference to water intrusion problems in its evaluation of the Sears building, Cameron said, “They sent a preliminary report to Tim Telfer (the county’s land manager) and, when he saw that it didn’t address the potential for water intrusion, he sent it back and said the potential for water intrusion had not been addressed. They sent it back with a clean bill of health.” (View the Universal Engineering Sciences report HERE.)

The county is now preparing for litigation. “We’re no longer going to be in the business of letting taxpayers pick up the tab for some of these oversights,” Cameron said. 

County Attorney Al Hadeed, Cameron wrote in his report to commissioners, was preparing notices about potential litigation to Universal; to the building’s former owners, the Darnell Group; and to real estate broker Margaret Sheehan-Jones, who’d brokered the Sears deal and also the sale to the county of the mold-affected former hospital building that became the Sheriff’s Operations Center. 

County Commissioner Donald O’Brien released a short statement on Facebook: “I was frustrated to learn of the mold and water intrusion issues at the recently purchased Sears building,” he wrote.  “I will make sure our county administrator pursues every avenue to recover costs from responsible parties to mitigate this building.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

The Clerk of Court has previously resisted requests from the sheriff to cede more space in the courthouse. He’s said that doing so would impact his own operations, already hampered by the FCSO’s increased presence there.

But, O’Brien said, “The sheriff has to go somewhere. I know Mr. Cameron’s working on that, and still have hopes we can work something out with the clerk.”

Cameron and Staly had not approached Bexley since the latest revelations about the Sears building, but Cameron spoke to him several week ago.

“He said he’d made all the accommodations he was willing make,” Cameron said. 

Might the Wachovia building, which the county had planned to sell, become an option again? 

“We’re not taking anything off the table yet,” Cameron said. 

Staly said the county is considering a range of options, but does need to consider the particular needs of a law enforcement building, because certain facility issues could affect the FCSO's accreditation.

The city of Palm Coast has some space off Utility Drive, currently used for the city’s utility staff, that might be useable, he said.

“We looked at it today,” Staly said. “There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of dynamics for that to be a workable solution. … It is a ready-to-go building, except it’s not designed for a law enforcement building and it would disrupt some of the utility staff, and we would not be able to take the whole building because there have to be people working in there.”

If the FCSO does end up using it, he said, the building would house the FCSO's current Palm Coast precinct staff, but not the staff members displaced from the Operations Center, so, “It doesn’t solve the courthouse issue.”

The county might also reconsider the Wachovia building, or look at rental space on northern Old Kings Road or in Town Center, he said. 

“So, I think there’s lots of options,” Staly said. “The question becomes, in my mind, which is the best deal for the taxpayers? And ultimately, that’s a decision that the County Commission has to make.”

The County Commission will discuss possibilities during a commission meeting at 5 p.m. May 20 at the Government Services Building on State Road 100.

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