Sharon Gaskin wants to sustain the historic County Courthouse in Wewahitchka.
As she told the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, she’s had other “hare-brained” ideas that worked out just fine.
Gaskin urged commissioners to consider a lease or donation of the courthouse, which the county has abandoned and will stop funding next month, to her company, North Florida Child Development.
As the lone remaining tenant of the courthouse Gaskin said she and her company had a vested interest in maintaining the headquarters for her five-county operation in the same spot it has grown and thrived from over two decades.
Gaskin also expressed concerns about the potential for continued deterioration of the building, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, if no entity calls the courthouse home.
“It is our lighthouse so to speak,” Gaskin said, alluding to the current effort to save the Cape San Blas Lighthouse. “It is one of the true landmarks in Wewahitchka. I’d like to be the caretaker.”
The county, citing a shortage of funding, has moved the extension office and constitutional officers out of the courthouse, which long served as the county seat before the seat was moved to Port St. Joe.
County attorney Jeremy Novak said there are maintenance issues which are pressing and in need of “immediate remediation”, including work to the basement, electrical and issues of mold.
The county currently charges NFCD $1 per square foot for the 2,200 square foot building and noted that some of the more pressing work would be focused on the area NFCD currently inhabits.
The county will also stop paying utility bills for the building as of Oct. 1.
“I have huge concerns about this,” said Commissioner Joanna Bryan of any transfer to NFCD, adding there was some distance between leasing the space to address maintenance issues and turning over title to a county building.
Gaskin initially broached a donation to her non-profit corporation as one means of transfer but after hearing resistance from the board suggested a lease, with a reversionary clause turning the property back over to the county in the event NFDC leaves.
Gaskin said she would also insure public access to the building in the future.
“I’ll take it on to save it,” Gaskin said. “Our corporation would do that. I’ve done other hare-brained ideas that worked out.”
Among those, at least to some skeptics nearly a decade ago when she proposed it, was building a new school in Port St. Joe, a facility that opened last year.
Gaskin noted NFCD operates in five counties, has an overall budget that has grown from $400,000 to more than $4 million and that 70 percent of her operations are in Gulf County.
As much as saving the courthouse entered the picture, so did maintaining her staff and operations in Gulf County.
“I need your support to continue to operate economically in this county,” Gaskin said, adding that if forced she could move her headquarters to another county.
“I would hate to see it be closed. I don’t want to see that happen. The building would continue to deteriorate.”
Commissioner Warren Yeager said he supported the move, though he wanted to see details.
“In theory I am in support of that move,” Yeager said. “We have looked at this in the past.”
Commissioner Ward McDaniel noted Gaskin’s track record of success.
“I have never seen you take on a project and not improve it. I think you’ll take this on and improve it,” he said.
Tan Smiley also voiced support, saying he “did not see a big problem.”
But Bryan and Commissioner Carmen McLemore expressed reservations, particularly about giving up ownership of a county building.
“This is a critical issue to me,” McLemore said. “I am going to have to sit down and look at all corners of this.”
Bryan said she would like to see a written proposal, which Gaskin said had been drafted and would be provided to commissioners.
Novak said he would work with Gaskin in sketching out a proposal to put before commissioners at their final September meeting.
Staff, board communications
As a third meeting devolved into debate over the Americus Ditch project, commissioners and staff spent nearly an hour heatedly dissecting communications and the dissemination of information between commissioners and staff.
Americus Ditch, a $1 million project some six years old but the focus of questions raised by a resident and Bryan in recent months, was the launching pad for discussion on broader issues.
Bryan, who has said from the outset her questions were less about one project and more about county bid policies, and county administrator Don Butler exchanged testy words regarding requests for information from Bryan and Butler’s handling of those requests.
Brad Bailey and later Ralph Rish spoke to the board about false statements they alleged were made from the podium by resident Bill Koran and Bryan, but for commissioners the discussion spun into a debate regarding the demands put on staff for information.
By the end, commissioners had approved – 4-1 with Bryan dissenting – mandating that requests for information or work from county staff deemed by Butler to be outside the norms of current operations come to the board for approval.
Bryan protested, saying the board should not be weighing in on how one commissioner asks for and receives information.
“It is not proper for the board to limit access to information to one commissioner,” Bryan said.
She was out-voted and out-voiced.
“We are a legislative body,” Yeager said. “We have to work as a board. There needs to be some kind of consistency on what we ask staff to do.
“We need to figure out how to move this county forward. We need to figure out how to get along and agree to disagree. I want to prevent us from moving backwards. We have been moving backwards for too long.”
Smiley said, “We have got to work together. We have to respect one another. Respect goes a long way.”
Butler said there had never been a question over his 25 years that he would follow and implement board action. He said he would continue to do so.
“If it (the request) is legitimate, I’ll do it and if it is not, this board will have to decide,” Butler said.