County commissioners had two weeks to consider Sharon Gaskin’s vision for restoring and maintaining the historic courthouse in Wewahitchka.
Tuesday they unanimously agreed that they like what they saw so far.
Commissioners approved a short-term agreement with Gaskin and North Florida Child Development, Inc. with an eye on a long-term lease for the courthouse in Wewahitchka that served for decades as the county seat.
“It is a treasure to the county,” said Commissioner Joanna Bryan. “I think the county should work with Ms. Gaskin to restore that building.”
The issue is pressing.
The county has moved staff and constitutional officers out of the courthouse and will stop paying for utilities when the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
As Commissioner Ward McDaniel noted, the building could only “go down” from that point unless maintained.
Gaskin, president and CEO of NFCD, and her company, which operates from Gulf County but provides early childhood learning and other services in five counties, have proposed partnering to avoid that deterioration.
In her latest proposal to the BOCC Gaskin asked for a 10-year lease at $1 per month.
NFCD – which currently pays $2,200 a month in rental payments – would also assume all utility bills and any basic upkeep and maintenance.
The lease would also contain language by which the county and NFCD agree to pursue funding, especially grant funding, to help restore the courthouse, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
“We’ve got to keep that building,” said Commissioner Ward McDaniel. “That is our history. I think we are very close (to an agreement).”
The courthouse also has pressing maintenance issues.
There is a leaking back wall and a problem with mold in the rear of the building, rendering that area unsafe.
Further, there is water in the basement of the building that is near electrical infrastructure.
County administrator Don Butler suggested any lease agreement define where NFCD can and can not be within the courthouse.
Commissioners also wanted county attorney Jeremy Novak, who was absent, to sign off on any lease contract, and Butler suggested a Monday meeting.
In the interest of more deliberation in the process, Bryan moved and commissioners approved – Commissioner Warren Yeager was also absent – a motion that allows NFCD to assume responsibility for monthly utility payments Oct. 1.
“That will keep the doors from closing,” Gaskin said. “We can work out a long-term lease. I need to make sure the building is safe for my employees, too.
“I’m excited about it. I’m ready to work on it. I’m glad they made the decision to move forward.”
Bryan’s motion included direction that NFCD will operate on a month-to-month lease for up to six months while the county and NFCD work through a lease agreement.
Two weeks ago Gaskin likened the importance of the Old Courthouse on the north end of the county to the south-end landmark the Cape San Blas Lighthouse.
Operating Head Start and Early Head Start among other programs in five counties, NFCD has an overall budget more than $4 million. She said 70 percent of her operations are in Gulf County.
She said if the courthouse became an untenable location she might have to move her headquarters to another county.
Primarily, though, Gaskin made clear the attachment to the courthouse.
“I will take it on to save it,” she told commissioners. “I would hate to see it be closed. I don’t want to see that happen.”
The commissioner most vocally opposed to turning over a public building to a private entity, Commissioner Carmen McLemore expressed support for Gaskin’s vision.
“I really have no issue with it,” McLemore said. “I think it is the best thing going for the north end of the county. I just want to make sure the attorney is okay with it.”
Wewahitchka Clerk, Tax Collector offices
During the coming week, the new Wewahitchka offices for the Clerk of Courts and Tax Collector, to be located in the old Health Department Building on N. 3rd Street, will be equipped with a new phone system.
Until the system is up and running the Clerk’s office can be contacted at 227-5630 and the Tax Collector at 227-5628.
The federal lawsuit filed by a local political action committee against the BOCC and three individual commissioners roiled another meeting as commissioners considered how to pay the $10,000 legal bill.
The discussion led to an outburst from McLemore saying Bryan was a member of the PAC – she is not a listed member on the website nor has been – and adding that she jeopardized the county’s position in another lawsuit with recent comments to the contractor on the Americus Ditch project.
McLemore also criticized Bryan for approving a motion several meetings back – which passed 3-2 with McLemore and Commissioner Tan Smiley dissenting – that moved the county forward on research to explore the potential for a return to county-wide voting.
Bryan said, “The truth is an absolute defense” as it pertained to threatened litigation and that she does not work for the county attorney, does not work for McLemore, and “I am not playing this game with you.”
She said criticism of BOCC action pertaining to the Voter’s Rights Act demonstrated that McLemore didn’t understand the law or disregarded it.
The discussion, which consumed the first 15 minutes of the meeting, was the latest salvo what has been a prickly relationship between Bryan and McLemore.