BROOKSVILLE — The tug-of-war between Hernando County's sheriff and Corrections Corporation of America over who will run the county jail comes down to money.
While Sheriff Richard Nugent has said he could save taxpayers a lot of cash if he takes over the facility, CCA officials said Thursday they have been losing money while operating the jail.
The loss of federal immigration inmates and fewer local inmates has dropped revenues significantly, the Nashville-based company's vice president and treasurer Patrick Swindle told county officials and a representative of the Sheriff's Office.
Why, then, would CCA want to continue running the jail, which it has overseen since 1988?
CCA has faith that the jail will be profitable once again. "We take the long-term view,'' Swindle explained.
When Nugent broached the possibility of taking over the jail several weeks ago, CCA officials promised him and the county that they would open their operational books so that county commissioners would have all the details they would need to make a decision.
Nugent says he can run it for less and do it better. The County Commission asked county staff to bring an agreement between the county and the sheriff to its April 13 meeting.
Nugent and his point person on the jail project, chief Bill Kicklighter, however, did not attend Thursday's meeting. They were reportedly touring the jail instead.
Swindle distributed a single sheet of paper to the group detailing actual jail operation costs in 2009 compared to projected costs in 2010.
He said CCA's costs could not be accurately compared to what it would cost the government to run the facility, noting for example that CCA has tremendous bulk buying power for its 78,000 inmates across the country.
"Your world will look different from our world,'' he said.
Catie Blue, the sheriff's assistant finance director, began to narrow down what specific expenses were included in each category.
Blue questioned staffing levels from last year, when there were more inmates in the jail. Swindle said it is not possible to reduce staff at the same proportion as reducing inmates, meaning personnel costs continue even if the income from the inmates drops.
The bottom line, he said, was "We're losing money.''
The county pays CCA $53 per day per inmate. CCA figures that it needs 560 inmates to break even; on Tuesday, there were about 530 inmates.
The biggest economic hit to CCA came in November when the federal inmates were moved to a new facility built for them in Baker County near Jacksonville to be closer to immigration offices and federal courts.
Tommy Alsup, CCA's senior director of business development, said that the company continues to try to market the several hundred available beds at the jail, but the federal inmates — and the dollars that went with them — are long gone.
"They are not coming back,'' he said.
CCA also noted they own $2.5 million in fixed assets at the jail ranging from computer equipment to law enforcement equipment, which would have to be replaced if Nugent took over the facility.
The county would also lose out on about $20,000 per year in tangible taxes paid on that equipment, Swindle said.
Company officials also shared detailed information on medical expenses, salaries, $30,963 for a starting salary for correctional officer, and even the cost of providing meals through the separate food service company that serves all CCA facilities. That cost is $3 per day per inmate.
At one point, County Commissioner Jeff Stabins asked County Administrator David Hamilton where the discussions stood on using ankle monitoring devices to keep inmates out of jail and cut the county's costs.
Hamilton said he had a received a report but that the issue of who was operating the jail would impact how to implement the ankle monitors. Stabins said he thought that if CCA were still running the jail then the bracelets could help the county save money, but it was unclear whether the same would be true if the sheriff took over.
Stabins also pressed Hamilton on whether he asked the sheriff to take over the jail, and Hamilton said he did not but that they two had discussed the issue together.
After hearing much of the discussion, Stabins said it seemed a "no-brainer" for the county to stay with CCA because inmate numbers were down and so were county expenses.
Implementing ankle monitoring would only help. The cost of re-equipping the jail would be millions and the county would be taking on greater risk, he said.
"Hernando County has to decide that,'' Swindle responded.
Hamilton said a draft agreement will come to the commission on April 13 but he doubted that the actual side-by-side cost comparisons and a recommendation would be ready that day.
The county has asked CCA to provide all its financial information and its inventory through the Florida Government in the Sunshine Law. The inventory has been provided and additional financial detail which backs up what was presented Thursday also will be coming, the officials said.
"We have nothing to hide,'' Swindle said. "We've been a partner for 22 years.''
Alsup urged a quick resolution. "It's been very stressful on our staff,'' he said, noting that the 179 workers don't know what the future holds.
"We live in an era of uncertainty,'' Hamilton replied.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.