Flagler County commissioners have given the first firm indication that they no longer intend to fix the issues at the sheriff’s troubled operations center and move deputies back into the vacated administrative center.

BUNNELL — Flagler County commissioners have given the first firm indication that they no longer intend to fix the issues at the sheriff’s troubled operations center and move deputies back into the vacated administrative center.

Instead, commissioners voted unanimously Monday night to move forward with plans to build a new "district office" for the sheriff on county-owned land near the Flagler County Public Library’s main branch in Palm Coast at a cost of $12 million to $15 million.

Michael Esposito, the county's special projects coordinator, presented commissioners with four viable long- and short-term relocation options for the troubled operations center, which has been plagued by "sick building" suspicions for the past 17 months.

Commissioners chose by far the most expensive option, which includes construction of a 40,000-square-foot building on the grounds of the 19-acre, county-owned property anchored by the library at 2500 Palm Coast Parkway NW. Much of the land is undeveloped and was recently cleared of brush and debris. The library occupies the southeast corner of the property.

County officials sold the library property as a solution to several problems, saying they intend to also construct a new substation for the Tax Collector’s Office on the campus. Cameron said that would save about $300,000 each year in leasing costs. The county would also shave another $300,000 from its yearly budget by eliminating Sheriff’s Office rental space, as well as the need for security at the Tax Collector’s Office and library.

Commissioner Joe Mullins carried the news to Palm Coast officials during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. He said moving the new district office to the library site would also help put an end to the homeless camp in the area.

He asked city officials to work with county officials in expediting the permitting process for the site and conducting traffic studies at the busy intersection of Belle Terre and Palm Coast parkways.

"Sheriff’s operations center has not been an easy fix," Mullins told the council. "It’s been something we’ve really had to look at."

Mullins went on to guarantee that the commission will not increase taxes this year, saying he’s actually anticipating a tax decrease for residents. 

"That’s’ going to be a little challenging with the sheriff’s ops center, but we’ve got our sleeves rolled up and we’re going to do it," he said.

The prospect of relocating the sheriff’s main operations center brought to the forefront a few conflicting interests among some residents. Bunnell is Flagler’s county seat and multiple residents from that city complained Monday that moving the agency’s central headquarters out of town would leave them feeling abandoned. They also insinuated it would be a violation of the Florida Constitution, which dictates that “the principal offices and permanent records of all county officers” must be located in the county seat.

However, County Administrator Jerry Cameron said the Sheriff’s Office’s "legal address" will remain 901 E. Moody Blvd., the site of the current operations center. Meanwhile, county officials said the new complex in Palm Coast will merely be a “district office,” characterizing it as one of many Sheriff’s Office satellite stations they said will sprout as the county continues to grow.

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County Commissioner David Sullivan indicated a move to fund the new office for the sheriff will mean several other projects — including construction of a new library branch to serve Bunnell and south Palm Coast — would be delayed indefinitely.

Sheriff Rick Staly told commissioners he thought the plan to move his agency's operations to the county property in Palm Coast was the best of four options presented. But he felt another viable option would be moving to undeveloped land near Flagler’s Emergency Operations Center on the Government Services campus in Bunnell.

Flagler officials have designated land near the EOC as the site for a future library branch and the notion of giving it up to the Sheriff’s Office apparently was too much to bear for Flagler County Public Library board chairman Jim Ulsamer, who sat in the audience listening to much of Monday's discussion.

“The sheriff carries a gun, but over my dead body are they going to take that land,” Ulsamer said. “Sheriff Staly is so correct — he inherited this problem. But it is sucking the air out of the room and it’s sucking the finances out of this county.”

The county has invested $6.5 million so far into buying and renovating the current Sheriff’s Office Operations Center and will be paying on the loan for the capital project until 2035.

The 35,000-square-foot building center has sat largely abandoned since Staly issued an emergency evacuation order in June, removing all 68 employees assigned to the site after a growing number of workers complained that working in the building was making them sick. Those employees were relocated to the jail administrative building on Justice Lane and the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center, where deputies and civilian personnel are spread across three floors of the courthouse.

That set-up was initially meant to be a 90-day interim solution to give county officials time to find a more viable short-term fix. Staly has for months told commissioners his command staff is scattered and asked for a remedy.

Other options presented to commissioners Monday included expanding the Sheriff’s Office presence in the county courthouse or a combination of using the former Sears building on Palm Coast Parkway NW, recently acquired by the county, with a spec building under construction at U.S. 1 and Otis Stone Hunter Road.

Officials expect it to take at least two years to design and build the new Sheriff's Office complex. Commissioners on Monday also authorized Cameron to spend up to $1 million to make necessary funding transfers to the Sheriff’s Office budget and pay for permitting, design or survey costs to set the plan in motion.

Commissioner Greg Hansen initially made a motion to move forward with the Palm Coast site as a long-term plan and give deputies the entire first floor of the courthouse in the meantime. But Circuit Court Clerk and Comptroller Tom Bexley told commissioners that would limit his staff’s access to official records located on the first floor.

“This is wrought with problems and with failure,” Bexley said. “Not only are you not ultimately fixing the problem, you’re going to put a Band-Aid on the Sheriff’s Office operation.”

That prompted county officials to back away from reconfiguring the Sheriff’s Office’s current set-up at the courthouse, at least for the time being.