BROOKSVILLE — Corrections Corporation of America, which has run the Hernando County jail for 22 years, gave notice to Hernando officials Wednesday morning that it will walk away from the facility in 120 days.
In a letter delivered to commission Chairman John Druzbick, CCA notes that the 876-bed jail needs inmates from outside the county to be financially viable, and that the county's interest in seeking competitive bids for jail operators is hampering its efforts.
"The county's continued overtures regarding transitioning operations makes marketing of the beds extremely difficult,'' wrote CCA official Natasha Metcalf.
The company is open for talks if new contract terms can be found that are "beneficial to both parties,'' but that would likely mean increasing the county's annual jail budget of more than $11 million at a time when the county's revenues are declining.
The question of what's next is tough to answer because, after an extensive study, Sheriff Richard Nugent told the County Commission earlier this month that after seeing the jail's condition, he was no longer interested in running it.
On Wednesday, Nugent said he was reconsidering.
He also had harsh words for CCA's surprise announcement, calling it "a tactic on CCA's part to force the board into negotiations. ... I don't think that anybody likes to be negotiating with a gun to their head.''
He added, "My respect for CCA has diminished greatly'' because if the company follows through, it would put the company's 170 Hernando County employees out on the street.
"Basically they're telling them "you're out of a job'," Nugent said. "I'm really angry that they would pull this.''
When County Administrator David Hamilton learned of CCA's notice on Wednesday, he set up an emergency meeting with Nugent and his staff to ask Nugent to reconsider his stand.
Hamilton also was angry with CCA, noting that the company had several officials in the audience of Tuesday's County Commission meeting and "not a word was mentioned that a letter was coming. That's hardly good faith,'' he said.
Calling CCA's decision to exercise the contract's required 120-day notice of termination "an unwelcome surprise that came out of nowhere,'' Hamilton said that he would offer commissioners all the options he could at their next regular meeting on May 11.
Nugent said he made it clear that he would work with the county staff as much as possible but that "the county has got to make this whole, this building that has been allowed to deteriorate.''
Hamilton has already identified more than $400,000 in the county budget for repairs needed immediately and has recommended another $1 million be set aside in next year's budget.
CCA's decision riled county Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who said he believes the company has had enough of dealing with the Hernando County government.
"If you beat up your partner hard enough and long enough, she'll file for divorce,'' he said. "The real losers here are the taxpayers.''
Stabins blamed the county administrator for CCA's decision.
"This is a sad day for Hernando County,'' he said. "We negotiated a great contract with CCA last fall, saving us hundreds of thousands of dollars, but then David Hamilton had to keep stirring the pot and meddling behind the scenes. Now, everybody loses.''
The contract negotiated last year, which was to run through 2012, lowered the per-inmate per-day charge to the county while allowing CCA to keep the full amount it receives for out-of-county inmates. Hernando County used to get a small portion of that.
Late last year, federal authorities sent their immigration inmates to a new facility in Baker County. Since then, CCA has been trying to find replacements.
In a press release, Damon Hininger, president and CEO of CCA, stated, "The decision was not easy for CCA given the partnership it has had with Hernando County for nearly 20 years, but is necessary given the continuing poor financial performance at the facility. CCA will work with the County to ensure a smooth and effective transition to the new operator."
The turnover would take place on or before Aug. 26.
Stabins said he believes the county needs to put the contract out for bid immediately and, if the majority of the commission agrees, "if no proposal is acceptable, the sheriff will run the facility on an interim basis'' until someone else can be found.
According to Florida Statutes, "Upon adoption of an ordinance by a majority of the county commission, the sheriff may be designated the chief correctional officer of the county correctional system.''
Other commissioners' reactions were more muted.
"There may yet be some opportunity for re-negotiating the contract,'' said Commissioner Dave Russell. "That door was left open.''
Commissioner Jim Adkins said that, with CCA losing federal prisoners and the possibility that the jail population will drop further because the county is working on an inmate release program using ankle monitors, the company's decision to pull out "may just be a sign of the times.''
Druzbick said that CCA has talked before about paying for some of the jail's needed repairs and offsetting that cost with a higher per-diem payment by the county, and those kinds of discussions can still take place.
"We'd be spending the money one way or another,'' he said.
Druzbick said that another possibility if talks with CCA don't pan out could be to put out a request for proposals immediately to find another company to run the facility, he said.
Once the problems with the jail maintenance were discovered, Hamilton on April 16 suspended the county's purchasing director, Jim Gantt, for two weeks without pay for failing to monitor the county's contract with CCA, which includes a requirement to keep the jail in good repair.
While Gantt is out, the county clerk's audit services director is combing through records from the purchasing department. The outcome of the audit will help determine whether Gantt and jail monitor Barbara Fisher retain their jobs.
What will happen with the jail's 170 employees is also unclear. In her letter to the county on Wednesday, CCA's Metcalf noted that the county's talk of bidding out jail operations has kept them in a constant state of flux.
CCA began notifying employees about the plan to end the contract beginning Wednesday morning, said spokesman Steve Owen.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.