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Palm Coast Monday, May 6, 2019 5 months ago

Sheriff's Office to move Palm Coast deputies into former Sears building

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The move will let the Sheriff's Office move deputies out of City Marketplace to avoid a rent hike.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

For almost a year, the Flagler County Sheriff's Office has been dealing with the displacement of its staff from the evacuated Sheriff's Operations Center on State Road 100 in Bunnell, where employee illnesses led to testing, the exposure of a mold problem, and the facility's evacuation last June. 

But now the FCSO is working on a new facility problem: The owner of the units the FCSO rents at City Marketplace for its Palm Coast branch office is planning to raise the rent, prompting the sheriff to seek new space for the agency's Palm Coast staff as well. 

The county currently pays about $77,000 per year for the spot in City Marketplace. The rent hike by the owner, John C.  Bills, would raise that to $120,000, County Administrator Jerry Cameron said at a May 6 County Commission meeting.

"Have we tried to negotiate? ... Because that’s disgraceful," County Commissioner Donald O'Brien said. 

Sheriff Rick Staly said that had already been attempted.

"He is within his legal rights to do what he’s doing, although none of us like it," Staly said.

It's not the first time Bills has hit City Marketplace tenants, including the FCSO, with a sudden increase in rent and fees.

The county has already notified Bills that it will not be renewing its lease, and has been month-to-month since the last lease ended at the end of December. 

But the county has options: It purchased the former Sears building on Palm Coast Parkway for use as a Tax Collector's Office branch, but since decided it didn't need a new branch, so that space is available. It had also bought a bank building, formerly a Wachovia, near the Island Walk shopping center for a Sheriff's Office branch in Palm Coast before determining that the building would need more repairs than the county initially realized. Those are ongoing.

Meanwhile, the county has already started construction on a new, larger branch building in Palm Coast on county-owned land near the county library on Palm Coast Parkway, but that will take about two years to construct.

For now, Cameron suggested, the county could alter the Sears building for about $40,000, make that into a Sheriff's Office branch building, and sell the Wachovia building. Then, when the permanent Sheriff's Office branch building next to the library is completed, the county could also sell the Sears building. 

"That would be a considerable savings if we were to go ahead and do that," Cameron said. And, he said, it would give the sheriff some extra space for staff members who have been displaced from the Sheriff's Operations Center. They're currently divided between the jail administrative building and the courthouse, where the FCSO competes with the Clerk of Courts Office for space.

Moving FCSO employees into the Sears building, Cameron said, "would go some way to alleviating the situation at the courthouse in addition to saving the 200-plus thousand dollars."

County commissioners opted to follow Cameron's suggestion.

IMPASSE

Moving employees to the Sears building, Sheriff Rick Staly said, would not do much to improve matters at the courthouse.  

Staly and Clerk of Court Tom Bexley — both constitutional officers entitled by law to space provided by the county government — have found themselves at odds over the limited space in the courthouse building. 

"They are packed like sardines. It has now come to the point where it is drastically hurting the operations and the working conditions for those employees."

— RICK STALY, sheriff, on his employees' working conditions at the county courthouse

After the FCSO's Ops Center was evacuated, the agency, with the county's blessing, moved about 10 employees to the jail administrative building and another 60 went to the courthouse, Staly said.

Bexley has stated repeatedly that the FCSO's presence there hinders his own operations. The sheriff has said his employees don't have enough space to do their jobs, and are "packed like sardines." 

That's left Cameron in a difficult position, he said.

"The clerk has taken the position that he is unwilling to make further accommodations," Cameron said. "This leaves me with the task of figuring out what to do with the detective section of the Sheriff’s Department, which obviously is a critical operation. That needs to remain with the patrol and command. ... Right now we’re at a bit of an impasse, and I’m not sure what I would need to do to preserve the integrity of operation and at the same time come up with the space."

Staly said the current situation can not continue.

"My staff has tried to work with the clerk also, and we have had no success," Staly said. "Now it’s either time to bring it to a head, or we need to lease the sheriff new space. … I would encourage you to come and walk through and see the conditions they’re (FCSO employees) operating under, and also see the availability of space."

County Commissioner David Sullivan asked if the county could force the clerk to give the sheriff more room.

"I hate to go this route, but we do own that building," Sullivan said. "It would seem to me that if push comes to shove ... that we direct the clerk that we need additional space in the building."

Cameron said that's one option, though not there preferred one.

Still, Cameron said, "I am running out of options." He said he'd visited the detectives' workspaces. Detectives, he said, have to have some privacy, for interviewing victims and witnesses. But detectives' space at the courthouse, Cameron said, "looks more like a mail order phone bank."

FENCE APPROVED

Construction of the Sheriff's Office branch that will abut the Flagler County Public Library branch on Palm Coast Parkway is in its earliest phase: Plastic construction fences have been added, and signs warn would-be trespassers to stay off.

That hasn't been working perfectly. The parcel also happens to be the site of a former homeless camp that has been displaced as the formerly vacant land has been converted into a construction zone. Some homeless people have tried to re-enter it and camp there again, Staly said, and have been removed by deputies.

The current, temporary construction fence provides limited protection against trespassers. (Photo by Brian McMillan)

The County Commission, at its May 6 meeting, approved sturdier fencing: 6-foot-tall chainlink. The county administration says that new, sturdier fence is not about keeping the homeless population out.

"It is a fence to keep any unauthorized person out of the construction area," Cameron said. "You just can’t have unauthorized people running around in a construction zone."

The fence would be permanent, not temporary: The Sheriff's Office will be able to use it for security purposes after the new building is finished.

But the County Commissioner opted to fast-track the fence, and accept a $55,000 bid for the work from a local contractor, rather than spend the time to go through a standard bidding process. One other proposal came in considerably higher, county General Services Director Heidi Petito said, and moving forward with the local bid would save about six weeks.

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