Having worked since early last year to save the historic County Courthouse in Wewahitchka, Sharon Gaskin received a huge boost Tuesday.
During their regular bi-monthly meeting the Board of County Commissioners approved conditionally a lease agreement with Gaskin and her company North Florida Child Development, Inc.
The lease will allow NFCD to maintain its operations within the courthouse, moving from the upper floor to a space yet to be formally mapped out toward the front of the first floor.
The BOCC must still decide how to remediate water leaking and mold issues in the rear, where a jail was later added to the original courthouse.
The county would provide a 10 year lease at $1 per year, with an annual renewal of the lease coming before the BOCC each October, said county attorney Jeremy Novak.
There is also an economic development component of the lease under which NFCD must maintain a specifically identified number of full-time employees in Gulf County, Novak said.
The courtroom and chambers on the upper floor, a significant part of the courthouse’s registry onto the National Register of Historic Places, will continue to be available for BOCC and public use.
There will be a 90-day transition to finalize the lease as NFCD addresses required federal and state audits – the company operates Head Start, Early Head Start and other programs in five counties – in the next few months.
In return for the lease, NFCD has already transferred utilities into its name and has agreed to make certain improvements during the first 90 days of the lease, Novak said.
As the tenant it would carry costs for maintenance and repairs to the portion of the courthouse it is leasing while county work crews would continue maintenance of the grounds.
“We think it is a good lease,” said NFCD financial officer Gerald Thompson.
Given that the item was not on the agenda and she had not had time to fully review the lease, Commissioner Joanna Bryan suggested tabling the issue until the next regular meeting to ensure the process was “done right” and allow for any public input.
“I am grateful that Ms. Gaskin and her company have agreed to take this on,” Bryan said. “This is a great way to save this building. I’d just like a little more time to review this and the public may want to weigh-in.”
Novak and Commissioner Warren Yeager noted that the final lease would still need to come back to the full board, the footprint for NFCD had yet to be determined and in order to move ahead the BOCC should provide “conditional” approval of the lease pending a full vetting of the final document.
“I have been working 18 months on trying to save this building,” said Commissioner Ward McDaniel, “and take the burden off the taxpayer. It’s a historic building.”
Novak noted that county and NFCD staff will undertake an air quality to ensure the safety of the NFCD footprint before the company signs the lease.
The BOCC must still arrive at a plan and dollars to remediate issues in the back and upstairs of the courthouse, including leaks in the walls and basement and mold, issues that led to the BOCC moving all county offices in the courthouse into other facilities, particularly the old Health Department Building.
Another jail debate
For the second time in as many months Michael Hammond, administrator of the Gulf County Jail and deputy county administrator, took strong issue with comments made about the jail by Bryan during a prior meeting, this one the BOCC’s final budget hearing.
Saying Bryan had provided faulty facts and acted “irrationally” about the jail and potential savings, or in Hammond’s view no savings in farming inmates to Bay County, Hammond, in part defiant and in part condescending, took issue with Bryan’s description of the jail.
Hammond said Bryan had never set foot in the jail and had no basis to label it a “disgrace” during the budget meeting.
Bryan used the word in the context that it was a disgrace that county maintained a $1 million jail – Hammond said Bryan’s numbers change by the week and the jail budget is $1.1 million, not $1.2 million – that had not been inspected in several years.
Each county commissioner were sent correspondence from the office of the Florida Sheriff’s Association that oversees the Model Jail Standards program that indicated the jail should be inspected annually, Gulf County’s had not been in at least two years and was out of compliance at that time.
Hammond faulted the inspector at that time, called his report “bogus” and incorrect on a number of levels and that it had been a BOCC decision, years prior, to not spend the money to maintain the jail to Model Jail Standards.
He said having such an inspection was “asinine.”
As he had the previous month, Hammond also had Capt. Sonya Farmer on hand and this meeting also brought along the bulk of the employees at the jail.
Hammond added that he and staff had been putting time into putting down rumors about the jail closing and probation services returning to a private contractor while making the county money by taking over probation services.
Hammond said Bryan was being personal about the issue and seeking to have 15 employees laid off.
“I am proud of the jail, the people I work with and the continued discussion of closing the jail has left a bitter taste,” Farmer said.
Bryan said she had nothing against employees, did not wish to see jobs lost, but noted the issue is far broader.
The Florida Sheriff’s Association was asking the BOCC why the jail had not been inspected in several years and that the possibility existed for a circuit court to remove the inmates and close the jail if it was not in compliance.
“I have no issues with the employees,” Bryan said. “My concern is not only safety for the inmates and (for the employees). That is our responsibility. I want them in a safe, clean jail.
“What is a disgrace to me is this board does not want to look at this. We should operate within the law.”
The discussion, growing ever-more heated, veered into budgetary philosophy and that the BOCC just raised taxes, continues to put more work on fewer employees and, as Bryan said, “We cut and cut without operating more efficiently.”
Yeager took exception, noting the cuts the BOCC has made to the budget in recent years and how proposals for alternative sources of revenue gained “no traction.”
“Let’s start moving forward,” he added.