Local News

Commission: build new sheriff's office downtown

SEBRING - There could be a new sheriff's office, and it would be across Palmetto Avenue from the current facility.

At least that was the 3-2 consensus at Tuesday morning's workshop. It was a non-binding vote at the workshop.

The Highlands County commissioners and previous boards have decided before to relocate the sheriff's office to George Boulevard, and the property and evidence division at the Kenilworth Business Center. Just last month, Commissioner Ron Handley told the other four commissioners it occurred to him that the county also should move 75 deputies and office staff from sheriff's Liberty Star Plaza to the metal building at 4500 Kenilworth Blvd.

The Palmetto Avenue proposal was recommended by Sheriff Susan Benton. It would cost about $8.8 million to build, County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete estimated.

The county already owns a parking lot fronting Eucalyptus Street. Benton called a real estate agent about the two available lots and was told they were listed at $49,500 each.

"You'd better write 'em a check, sheriff," Handley advised; when property owners know the county wants it, the price will go up.

That would give the county enough room for 41,740 square feet, which will include Property and Evidence, currently located in the jail, Crime Scene Investigations, and the 75 deputies and staff who are currently renting Liberty Star Plaza.

Construction costs would be about $180 per square feet, Gavarrete estimated. Renovating an older building like Bank of America would cost about $125 per square foot, he said.

Commissioners generally rejected buying Sebring City Hall because the county would have to tear down the current buildings, relocate city government and refurbish the Bank of America building. That option bore the highest estimate: $9.7 million.

George Boulevard and Restoration Center would be too far from downtown; Liberty Star and Kenilworth are too small.

If the sheriff's office moved to the old Bank of America, Franklin Street would have to be closed to automobile traffic.

Going into the future, the sheriff's office needs from 39,000 to 42,000 square feet, Gavarrete said. Liberty Star offers 18,520, Suntrust Bank 27,600, Bank of America 33,621, and Restoration Center 32,500.

Commissioners have been talking about a new sheriff's office since 1995, and in 2005 started the move toward George Boulevard, where the Health Department, veteran's office, road and bridge, DeSoto City Fire Department and Emergency Operations are now located.

Even though the investigations department moved to Liberty Star three years ago, the current sheriff's office on Fernleaf is full. At one point, the 911 operations center was partially in second a story woman's bathroom. Property and Evidence, mental health, the laundry and other operations are still located in Highlands County Jail.

"We have enough beds," Benton said, "but we are doing laundry 18 to 20 hours a day to keep up."

If the sheriff's office, located behind the courthouse and the state attorney's office, moves out, the 911 call center would remain, along with some court functions.

Real estate agent Jimmy Wohl communicated an offer to sell Liberty Star office building at George and U.S. 27 for $2.5 million, but Chief Deputy Mark Schraeder said that working out of a storefront "is difficult for security."

A bank, church or shopping center would have to be retrofitted to withstand a category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds. Even Liberty Star, which was to code six years ago, might need a stronger roof, walls and windows.

"As Ramon told me once, if you throw enough money at any building, you can get it up to where you want it to be," Chief Deputy Mark Schraeder said. "Our recommendation to the board would be new construction, a building built for law enforcement."

He recommended keeping the sheriff's office downtown because it's next to the courthouse, the public defender, the courthouse, the jail, and to the public when they come to the courthouse. Deputies can drive, but it will be more costly.

Incorporating Property and Evidence and CSI with the sheriff's office will also save money, Gavarrete said, because they will share security, technology, break rooms and bathrooms.

The sheriff pressed for a decision. "What we look for today is your guidance."

And after two hours of presentations, commissioners spoke their minds. To Jack Richie, Greg Harris and Don Elwell, downtown was the only logical site. Jim Brooks and Handley didn't know how the county could justify the cost, or how it could be paid for.

Bill Youngman rose from the audience with the same question: "How do you pay for what you are going to build, or what you are going to buy? The easy way is just to raise taxes. We spend a big portion of the budget on law enforcement. If you're going to borrow money to do this, how are you going to pay it back? I want a lot of things, but look at what we can afford, and make your decision in that direction."

"The commissioners acknowledged nine years ago that there is a need for a new sheriff's office," citizen Rick Ingler said. "The need has not changed. I think the time to do it is now. You can't pay cash for any of these options. You're going to have to finance it." But there will not be cheaper time to borrow, he said.

The one-cent sales tax will expire in 2019, said Budget Manager Tim Mechling, so local banks will loan money for five years at less than 5 percent. After that, the county would have to convince voters to renew the infrastructure tax, or pay the mortgage with general funds, which is derived from real estate and other taxes.

If the county can't pay off the building in five years, Elwell suggested, money could be borrowed from the transportation fund, and Harris suggested the landfill closure fund could loan money for a short time too.

If Sebring Parkway Phase 3 is delayed, the county could also take $3 million set aside for that project, Harris suggested.

Commissioners agreed to take up the issue again on Feb. 17.