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Flip-flop on jail flummoxes Hernando County officials

BROOKSVILLE — This month, a top official with the Corrections Corporation of America looked Hernando County and sheriff's leaders in the eyes and told them, "We're losing money.''

Despite that, Patrick Swindle said, CCA valued its 22-year relationship with Hernando County so much that the national company wanted to continue to run the Hernando County Jail because it knew things would turn around.

"We take the long view,'' said Swindle, CCA's vice president and treasurer.

On Wednesday, the company handed County Commission Chairman John Druzbick a letter saying CCA was ending the contract and will leave in 120 days, a move that shocked commissioners and staff.

Why the about-face?

Spokesman Steve Owen said Thursday that Swindle's words about wanting to work with Hernando were true then and still are. The only caveat is that CCA is willing to absorb these short-term losses if the relationship with Hernando is to going to be long-term.

But with county staff pushing plans to seek bids from other competitors this fall, and then the sheriff saying he wants to run the jail only to reverse course until repairs are done to the facility, Hernando's message to CCA is that the partnership is waning, Owen said.

CCA also said the county's continued interest in finding another operator was hampering the company's ability to get federal inmates who are needed to make their operation profitable again.

And countering strong reaction from county commissioners and Sheriff Richard Nugent, Owen said CCA has acted in good faith in its relationship with the county.

Commissioner Dave Russell, for one, wasn't buying CCA's explanations on Thursday. He believes it is time for the county to move on.

"I don't see CCA as an option at this point,'' he said.

Russell noted that CCA representatives were in the audience at Tuesday's commission meeting and didn't see fit to mention the company's plans to end the contract.

"They were all smiles and then, the next day, we get a letter. I question the veracity of their claims that they want a long-term relationship,'' he said.

As for the assertion that the county was responsible for CCA not being able to get federal prisoners, Russell called it "a red herring.''

"I just don't buy that,'' he said. "I don't think they're being completely honest in inferring that it's partially our fault that they were unable to obtain more inmates. I don't appreciate that,'' he said.

The biggest development since the meeting with Swindle was when Nugent showed photographs to the commissioners of maintenance and structural problems at the jail. He cited these problems as the major reason why he was withdrawing his proposal to take over the jail.

On Wednesday, after the bombshell letter giving 120 days' notice, Nugent was back at the table with County Administrator David Hamilton.

Nugent's view is that CCA may be pulling back because of the jail's condition, which CCA will be at least partially responsible for paying to fix.

The company, he said, may also be concerned about an ongoing audit of the jail contract. He called CCA's notice a way to force the county to negotiate a more lucrative contract "with a gun to their head.''

Russell said he was concerned that opening up negotiations again with CCA, which the company has said it would be willing to do, could be costly to Hernando.

"They need more money in their revenue stream, but that is not going to happen on the backs of the Hernando County taxpayer,'' Russell said.

Commissioner Druzbick also said he was also concerned about the way that CCA handled the 120-day notice without having some conversation with the county administrator before issuing the letter.

"My confidence level is not there,'' he said.

Both Russell and Druzbick said they were glad they had options. Nugent has made it clear that the jail must be put in good order before he would take it over, but commissioners and county staff are supportive of getting that done.

Commissioner Jim Adkins also was upset about the way the letter of notice was handled and said he was glad to see the sheriff as a viable option again. His focus, though, is on getting a complete picture of just what needs to be done to repair the jail so a cost-effective way to complete that can be found.

Part of that process will be to determine CCA's level of responsibility to make those repairs, and Hamilton has said that the county will "absolutely'' make CCA pay its fair share according to the requirements of their contract.

CCA spokesman Owen said the company has been working with the county for years on making jail repairs.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he believes that turning the jail over to the sheriff should be the last resort because the commission has the right to force the sheriff to take over the facility "at whatever time we choose and for whatever budget we choose.''

Stabins suggested that Nugent should bid for the jail contract along with private companies, and he hoped CCA would submit a bid as well.

On Thursday, Stabins continued to point the finger at the county administrator.

"I still blame David (Hamilton),'' he said. "He created a crisis that is totally unnecessary at this time.''

He said he believes that Hamilton should not have been talking about seeking other interests to run the jail because the county already had a contract that was valid until 2012.

Stabins said he believes whatever other options are considered are going to be more expensive than CCA.

"I foresee dire consequences for the taxpayers of this county,'' he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Flip-flop on jail flummoxes Hernando County officials 04/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 29, 2010 8:41pm]
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