Commissioner Joanna Bryan on Tuesday asked her fellow board members to take a step back and consider all options for moving the Gulf County Sheriff’s Office.
Commissioners agreed to table action taken during last week’s special meeting and allow a committee of Sheriff Mike Harrison, county administrator Don Butler and staff to come back to the board with a full plate of options.
At that time, Commissioner Warren Yeager suggested and Bryan agreed, commissioners should hold a workshop to solicit public input.
The conversation began with Bryan detailing concerns from constituents regarding the SO moving to downtown Port St. Joe and into the building housing the Supervisor of Elections.
The public, Bryan said, had raised issues concerning available parking along Long Avenue, the message sent about safety by the presence of the SO and Port St. Joe Police Department within a block of each other and the impact on downtown of an emergency response from the SO.
In addition, Bryan noted, as this was an election year the Supervisor of Elections office could not feasibly move until 2015 and the renovations and repairs that would be taken on by moving two separate offices would burden taxpayers.
Bryan added that taking space in downtown for the Supervisor of Elections office would mean that an additional property that could be a retail shop or restaurant would be taken off the market.
Conversely, the BOCC could rent or lease a space which is currently empty and have a landlord find a better deal in the private sector as the economy improved.
“We definitely need more space for the Sheriff’s Office,” Bryan said, adding that commissioners should be looking at other buildings and properties. “I think we should look at the Industrial Park … until we identify grant funds for a suitable building.”
Bryan said the solution might be constructing an entirely new facility for the SO.
“I really like the idea of the Industrial Park,” Commissioner Carmen McLemore said. “We need to look at everything.”
Harrison seemed to shoot down the idea of the Industrial Park, saying it was his understanding that by statute the SO must be located in the county seat.
It was later noted by Commissioner Ward McDaniel that Bay County Sheriff’s Office headquarters are located in Lynn Haven, not the county seat of Panama City.
Butler said an agreement with the federal Economic Development Administration controls the Industrial Park and its tenant through 2016 and the county may not be allowed to site the SO there regardless.
Bryan responded that she believed the BOCC could approach the EDA before that time, given the problems the county has had leasing the 10,000 square foot building, including the breaking of the current lease by Wewahitchka-based Tifco.
Yeager agreed that the ultimate solution could be a new facility, but suggested the Supervisor of Elections office was the best fit given the available square footage.
The SO investigative unit currently uses a portion of the Old Health Department building, the main tenant of which is the Supervisor of Elections.
Bryan emphasized the “ordeal” of moving the Supervisor of Elections to new building, the work required ahead of a physical move and the costs.
“We are creating a lot of expense for taxpayers,” Bryan said.
She said the county could find another way to maximize the additional space in the Long Avenue building.
“I think we can make use of that space,” Bryan said. “I think we should be looking at other options of where the Sheriff’s Office could go.”
Harrison said parking would not be an issue along Long Avenue, that the Port St. Joe Police Department and EMS already respond to emergency through town with sirens and lights and that he believed the close proximity of the SO and PD would engender a feeling of safety in folks.
After a motion was passed to allow a small committee to bring options to the board, McDaniel concluded commissioners need to be thinking about building.
“(The sheriff) is in a predicament,” McDaniel said, adding the BOCC should look at available land it owns, the costs of a new building and the feasibility of securing grant funding to help defray those costs.