Flagler County orders more tests but delays any action on evacuating Sheriff's Office employees from 'sick building'
The Sheriff’s Operations Center should be evacuated immediately because of employee rashes and headaches, according to at least three elected officials: County Commissioners Donald O’Brien and Nate McLaughlin, as well Sheriff Rick Staly. But no action was taken at the June 4 workshop, frustrating Cpl. Joe Barile.
“There are a lot of good people who are suffering,” said Barile, representing the police union, in reference to the 27 sheriff’s employees who have already filed worker’s compensation claims. He told the commissioners: “I’m not telling you how to proceed because I do not know that answer. … Our hope is that you will treat this with the same urgency as you would treat … your own family.”
A $1.23 million purchase
In 2013, a series of workshops was conducted to explore options for a new Sheriff’s Operations Center. Of a half-dozen proposals, the old memorial hospital, built in 1979, was selected, and the commission voted 4-1 to buy it, along with 6.3 acres of property in downtown Bunnell, for $1.23 million.
Rather than demolish the building, the commissioners agreed to build the Operations Center in the shell of the old hospital, which had been gutted. Commissioner Charlie Ericksen voted against plan; McLaughlin and then-commissioners Barbara Revels, Frank Meeker and George Hanns voted for it.
McLaughlin said June 4 that the decision is now “backfiring on us.” But, he said, “We felt that we were making the decision based on good science and good budgeting, saving some money for the taxpayers and repurpose a building.” Then and now, eh said, “Everybody’s acting in good faith, and you can’t do any better than that.”
Jane Gentile-Youd, who is running to replace McLaughlin on the County Commission, said Coffey and McLaughlin "are responsible for this nightmare. ... The place is a dump. The county should destroy the building."
Testing and illness
In 2016, employees of the Operations Center began complaining about rashes. The building was tested for mold and other contaminants, and the results showed the building was clean.
In fact, as Environmental Engineer Zdenek “Zed” Hejzlar, Ph.D, (pronounced HAYZ-lar) said at the June 4 workshop, the county went above and beyond in testing the building.
Hejzlar, who reviewed 28 documents about the property dating back to 1943, said, “What you guys did was beyond ... There is no rules anywhere in the nation that would call for mold remediation based on few spores.”
County Administrator Craig Coffey indicated that he wanted to wait until Hejzlar does more testing — some of which could be done in three to four days — before undertaking the logistical nightmare of relocating all or most of the employees at the Operations Center.
“We have not had a single piece of evidence that says there’s anything wrong with this building,” Coffey said.
He also accused some in the community of being “political operatives” who were using the employees’ health problems to cast doubt on the 2013 purchase.
“We’re trying our best, and we will try to find some temporary space,” Coffey said. Later, he added, “At some point, we have to say, ‘We’ve tested all we can test.’”
County Commissioner Donald O’Brien disagreed. “I understand where we are with the testing,” he said, “but we can’t lose sight of the fact that we have health issues.”
O’Brien concluded by offering two scenarios: 1) Testing shows there’s nothing wrong, or 2) testing shows the building needs remediation. In either case, he said, “I don’t know how we can’t go forward immediately to relocate them today.”
McLaughlin repeated several times in the meeting that he wanted a plan to be in place to move the employees, even if it required the county to spend more money.
“We need to find a place for them to go today,” he said. “I don’t know what we can do to have confidence in that building.”
Moving the employees
Staly and Coffey agreed that it’s not a simple matter to relocate employees. In addition to workspace, the Sheriff’s Office has unique challenges with communications.
Complicating the matter further: Staly, who is on the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation, said the Sheriff’s Office could lose accreditation if this is not handled properly.
Kristine Pavlow, whose friends and family are employed at the Sheriff’s Office, said after the workshop that she was frustrated that no solutions were presented.
“You’re talking about people who are putting their lives on the line for you and me,” she said. “I would like to see them out of where they are. Then do the testing, then find out if there’s something wrong with the building. … Wait till we do more testing? No.”
McLaughlin said after the meeting that his preferred outcome is to move the Sheriff’s Office employees to the Emergency Operations Center, where, he said, there is plenty of room and technology.
How sick are they?
In defending the county’s process of testing so far, Coffey said, “We’re trying to base everything on science.” By contrast, he criticized the Sheriff’s Office for relying on anecdotal claims, including “an eye test online.” He pointed out: “This thing has mushroomed in the last couple of months,” referring to the increasing number of employees claiming health problems because of the building. “We want everyone to go see a doctor,” he said.
Joe Costello, a detective with the Sheriff’s Office, told the County Commission that he has “a lot of frustration and anger” over the way the building has been handled.
“There are four employees that are out sick today, not because they’re sick, but because they don’t want to be sick,” Costello said. “Something’s got to be done, and it’s got to be done yesterday. … Are we truly trying to work together?”
Photos of rotten wood
Dennis McDonald, who has run for multiple offices in previous years, and who has a background in construction, took photos during the construction of the Operations Center and circulated them in 2015. The photos appear to show rotten wood near the roof of the building.
Costello was one of several Sheriff’s Office employees who pointed out that these photos of rotten wood seem to not have been taken seriously by the county. He said it was “shameful” that the county did not provide the photos to Hejzlar as part of the evaluation.
“It’s almost like the county is giving them the information that they want to give him to get the results that they want,” Costello said.
McLaughlin also asked Hejzlar about this issue during the workshop. If it were true that rotten wood was covered with new material, rather than being replaced, what would be the consequences?
Hejzlar said a rotten board would be “loaded with mold,” but that the testing results did not support a conclusion that anything was wrong.
Moreover, County Engineer Faith Alkhatib provided the Palm Coast Observer with a report from TTV Architects, showing that the county had, in fact, given the photos to the general contractor in July 2015. The report stated that as the scaffolding was moved from location to location around the building, the rotten wood would be replaced. This suggests that McDonald’s pictures are not reflective of the building today.
When asked if it was ever verified that those rotten boards were replaced, Alkhatib responded, “I have no reason to doubt it was not corrected.”
The hospital wings
While they were originally planned to house county services on the same property as the Operations Center, four hospital wings were eventually torn down. County Commissioner Dave Sullivan asked Coffey if those wings were ever tested, and Coffey said, “They were not tested for mold or anything like that. … We didn’t do a lot of investigation at that time.” The plan was to do it later, when decisions were made about how they would be used.
Former sheriff James Manfre said at the workshop that he walked into the wings himself before they were knocked down, and he said nothing was ever cleaned out from when it was a hospital. Vagrants were living there for a year and a half, he said. The entire building was suspect from the beginning, he said.
“We are in a terrible place here as a county,” he said. “We face an incredible amount of liability. … Every day you fail to immediately abandon (the building) is another day this county will be paying out in remuneration.”