Taxpayers are now off the hook for the upkeep of the historic county courthouse in Wewahitchka.
And the effort to save the building has an in-house champion.
The Board of County Commissioners during their regular bi-monthly meeting on Tuesday gave final approval to a lease agreement with North Florida Child Development, Inc. that aims to maintain the building as a job-creator and historic treasure to the north end of the county.
As the CEO of NFCD Sharon Gaskin of Wewahitchka said last month, the courthouse is, “Our lighthouse,” alluding to ongoing efforts to save the Cape San Blas Lighthouse.
Under the terms of the lease, NFCD will occupy more than 4,000 square feet on the first floor of the courthouse, including foyer but excluding the old offices of the Gulf County Extension Service, more space than the operator of Early Head Start and Head Start programs in five counties occupied previously.
NFCD will assume all responsibilities for utilities, upkeep, maintenance and repairs.
The lease is for 10 years at $1 per year and is to be renewed annually, said county attorney Jeremy Novak.
“This is a win-win,” said Commissioner Warren Yeager. “It is a win for North Florida Child Development in getting the lease for $1 per year and it is a win for taxpayers as it takes the burden off of them for upkeep of the building.”
Under the lease terms, NFCD, which has been headquartered out of the courthouse for more than a decade, pledges to maintain a certain level of employees in Gulf County.
Gaskin approached the BOCC after the county, citing costs, completely abandoned the building in recent months.
The county moved the Extension Service and constitutional offices from the courthouse to the old Health Department Building in Wewahitchka.
The county must also abate issues in the back, upper floor and basement of the building, where leaks in walls and mold are problematic.
The upper floor courtroom is particularly important for its historic value and is a significant part of the reason the building is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Gaskin’s goal was two-fold; maintain operations in the NFCD’s Gulf County home and to save the building.
Right to Speak
With little debate and little in the way of public comment, commissioners moved ahead an ordinance that puts into county law the public’s right to participate in public meetings.
Until the past year, when the Florida Legislature, after two years of delays, acted, the Florida Sunshine Law pertaining to public meetings did not specifically bestow on the public the right to speak.
The county ordinance conforms to that new legislation, and Novak said is similar to policies already in place.
The public must now be provided an opportunity to speak on board action noticed in the meeting agenda after commissioners and staff have weighed in and discussed the issue.
For action that was not noticed on the agenda, the ordinance also provides for public comment prior to any board vote.
An individual will be given three minutes to speak, and additional time can be granted by majority vote of the board.
An organization will be allowed five minutes, but only one member of that organization may speak on the issue.
All public comments must be directed to the sitting chairman and not staff, another member of the public or an individual commissioner.
Public comments cannot be profane or vulgar, with commissioners changing initial language that included “insulting” with “abusive” on Tuesday.
Commissioners also expanded the prohibition against such language toward staff, commissioners or a member of the audience to include the “public” in total.
Commissioner Carmen McLemore voted against any changes, saying he “was fine” with the attorney draft of the ordinance. The suggestions for changes were all brought forward by Commissioner Joanna Bryan.
Closure on the jail?
Bryan sought to clarify the recent hubbub about the county jail and address a prepared written statement read by jail administrator Michael Hammond at the previous meeting.
Bryan said part of her job as commissioner was to examine all issues pertaining to the budget and that jail discussion was no different.
Contrary to statements made by Hammond and her fellow commissioners during prior meetings, Bryan said her intent was not to take jobs away from anybody, but only examine how the county might be able to save money.
Saying Hammond’s presentation was “inappropriate”, she said that contrary to his statement there is no law that requires each Florida county to have a jail.
She said she would like to take a closer look at the move of probation services in-house to determine the impact of collecting fees and fines on the Clerk of Courts as well as the validity of Hammond’s statement that the county is making a profit.
She said she was “flabbergasted” that talk of having a jail inspection as an opening for litigation, as suggested by Hammond, and said the Florida Sheriff’s Association – which has put the BOCC and each commissioner on notice about the lack of a jail inspection the previous two years – had the responsibility under law to maintain jail inspections.
“My examination of the jail was a budget item,” Bryan said. “I will continue to look at expenses and I may touch on these items again. I will continue to fight for what I think is right for the county.”