By James Manfre
Now that the Flagler County Commission is prepared to wrestle with how to solve the sick Sheriff’s Operation Center, it is important that the process that led the county here be reexamined so the same mistakes are not repeated.
In 2012, the commission decided to build a new Operation Center and place it in the Courthouse Annex that had been unoccupied since 2003 when the new courthouse was opened. When I became sheriff in 2013, the city of Bunnell requested that the court annex be ceded to the city for a larger Bunnell City Hall. The county agreed, which set the county on a search for a new site.
There were three possibilities proposed: the Emergency Operation Center that already housed the Sheriff’s Communication Center; an addition to the courthouse; or the old Bunnell Police Department Building across the street from the courthouse. All three options made sense from a logistics standpoint, and the costs ranged from a low of $2 million to redesign the Emergency Operation Center to $4 million for the courthouse addition. All three options were turned down by the county.
A new option was then proposed by the county: Purchase the abandoned hospital site at a cost of $1.3 million. Although this made little fiscal or operational sense in that the other three options were already owned by the county and were closer to the county center, the purchase was approved.
There were two suggestions made by county staff and myself: 1) that a project manager be hired to oversee the design and construction of the new facility as was done by the city of Palm Coast when they built their new city hall and 2) that the old hospital building, which had sat abandoned for more than a decade, be torn down. Several commissioners agreed, but the county administration turned down both requests.
During the demolition process, it was discovered that bats had infested the entire structure and there was mold in areas of the roof due to leaks. Also, the contractor found that the cast iron wastewater pipes had cracked and had to be jackhammered out of the concrete slab and removed through the plastic vapor barrier. This was reported to county administration.
The county also decided not to demolish the adjoining patient wings which were filled with debris, mold and garbage from trespassers. Once the building was occupied in November 2015, there was an odor emanating into the building from the decrepit patient wing building, and there was leakage through the doors closest to the patient wings when it rained.
Despite these conditions, the county refused to demolish the patient wings until 15 months later and did so without obtaining the proper Department of Environmental Protection permits and without utilizing an experienced demolition contractor. Within six months, the first serious symptoms were reported. A top detective then felt compelled to write a personal letter to the sheriff's administration, begging them to take the illnesses seriously.
The county administration should now hire the project manager it should have used from the beginning to make an objective appraisal of the costs of remediating the structure or determining that it cannot be reoccupied. This appraisal can then be part of any lawsuit if there is one brought against the contractor.
None of the present County Commission or county administrator were in office or were part the poor decisions of the past administration. I am hopeful that they will learn from these past mistakes and choose the fiscally responsible option with the health of our hardworking law enforcement personnel in mind.
James Manfre is an attorney in Palm Coast. He is a former sheriff of Flagler County.