BROOKSVILLE — The County Commission seems poised to hand over the keys to the county jail to Sheriff Richard Nugent.
As Commissioner Dave Russell, who was leaning in favor of the sheriff's takeover anyway, said on Friday, "I like it even better now'' after reading the pitch Nugent will make to commissioners Tuesday.
Not only was Nugent going to take over the facility and operate it for the same cost a private company is running it for now, but, "He believes he can save us another $500,000 right off the bat,'' Russell said.
Commission Chairman John Druzbick called it a "good fix" to have the sheriff take over the jail since 22-year-jail operator Corrections Corporation of America gave its 120-day notice of pulling out of the contract last week.
"I believe the sheriff can do the job that needs to be done over there,'' Druzbick said. "He has numerous ideas of where to save some money, which is important, and he can make the facility function at a higher standard than it is right now.''
County Administrator David Hamilton is recommending to the County Commission that Nugent take over the facility on Aug. 27. He will also recommend that the board dedicate nearly $6 million — $3 million from reserves, $2 million from a judicial center fund and $850,000 in other funds — to fix problems at the jail.
With the CCA notice, Hamilton concluded that there is not enough time to prepare, bid and analyze proposals from other outside companies. While CCA had left the door open for further talks with the county, Hamilton's memo does not mention that as an option.
On Friday, CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company has made no effort to pitch a new contract to the county but was still open to discussions. In any case, he reiterated that ending the contract was a tough choice for CCA.
"We will monitor the County Commissioners' meeting in order to keep current with activities as they relate to the jail, so that we can ensure a smooth transition of management and maintain our priority of safety and security as we fulfill the remainder of our contract with Hernando County,'' Owen said in an e-mail Friday to the Times.
In his memo to the board, Hamilton identified numerous benefits to the sheriff's takeover, including a more efficient alignment of judicial and county operations.
Also at Tuesday's meeting, Hamilton is recommending that the commission approve a new structure for the purchasing department, one that eliminates the purchasing director job now held by Jim Gantt. Gantt, who has been on two weeks of unpaid suspension, is the county official responsible for monitoring the contract on the jail.
The fate of the on-site contract monitor, Barbara Fisher is unknown but if the board approves the jail recommendation, Hamilton said there would be an immediate discussion about that position.
Gantt's suspension was pegged to his failure to ensure that the county jail was properly operated and maintained. Extensive maintenance and structural problems revealed by Nugent last month caused the sheriff to withdraw his original offer to take over the facility.
But after CCA gave notice, Hamilton opened discussions again with Nugent, and the sheriff agreed to again make an offer. Commissioners will consider that offer on Tuesday.
In a letter to the commission, Nugent stresses that time is of the essence and says he has already a jail operations committee. He also has hired a contract jail administrator, former Pasco County jail commander Michael Page, to work on the transition and had him on scene at the jail Friday examining its condition.
"We've got a ton of planning to do if the Board of County Commissioners says yes,'' Nugent said Friday. "We've got to hit the ground running. This is critical.''
Nugent has been adamant that his interest hinges on the county's willingness to make the needed repairs to the facility.
As for the millions Hamilton will recommend that the commission set aside in a jail capital improvement fund, using the judicial center funds would occur if the chief judge agrees. The judicial center money would be paid back to the fund over time, he explained.
In addition, he recommends that the county give the sheriff nearly $850,000 immediately to purchase equipment, uniforms and other items currently owned by CCA.
Hamilton said the repair cost estimates are merely estimates and the hope is that getting the jail up to speed will not be that expensive.
Several entities have conducted tours and examinations of the building and officials hope that the information will help them prioritize what needs to be done first and what is the responsibility of the county versus what is the responsibility of CCA for maintenance that the firm should have done.
"The county has really learned a lesson,'' Nugent said. "If you don't keep up with the infrastructure, when the piper comes, it's going to be more expensive.''
Commissioner Rose Rocco said she wasn't sure how she felt about the takeover by Nugent and is meeting with him on Monday to get more information. She was interested in details ranging from how much the county will pay to furnish the jail to whether employees hired there would be paid union wages such as Nugent's other workers.
Rocco also voiced concern about existing CCA staff on site.
"The clock is ticking, yes, but I don't want to see us make a stupid move,'' she said.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he too would "go along with'' the sheriff taking over the jail but he also wanted more information about the financial aspects of the deal including separating out costs for employee benefit packages and jail maintenance.
"There are a lot of unknowns,'' he said.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who has been a proponent of CCA, said Friday he would support the sheriff taking over the jail because of the timing. "We have no choice right now,'' he said. "At this moment in time, we've got to make sure it's run safely on Aug. 27.''
He said he would look at the arrangement as "a trial run.''
"I hope I'm wrong. I hope he can run it as efficiently as he has said he can,'' Stabins said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.