BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission on Tuesday formally designated the sheriff as the county's chief correctional officer, paving the way for Sheriff Richard Nugent to take over operations of the county jail in late August.
While the decision to shift the operations to the sheriff was unanimous, the details were not. Commissioner Jeff Stabins questioned how much control the county would have over dollars the commission was asked to set aside for the sheriff's use at the jail.
He also wondered why the commission was being asked to approve an interlocal agreement with the sheriff without sufficient controls for the county.
The commission has been stung by events surrounding the jail for the last several months. Nugent had been researching taking over the jail, but then backed away when he discovered a series of structural and maintenance flaws at the facility. Just weeks later, Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that has operated the facility for the past 22 years, announced it would end its partnership with the county at the end of August.
Nugent was invited back into the discussion and agreed to take over the facility for the same $11.2 million that was budgeted to run it this year.
The county has also talked about additional funding for the jail, including $850,000 for startup costs and earmarking $3 million in reserves to make needed repairs and upgrades to the jail building.
Stabins was the sole no vote against those budget transfers. He said he wanted a professional to tell the commission just how extensive the needed repairs are before setting aside $3 million. He also voiced concern about not having any control over how Nugent spends the $850,000.
He said he specifically didn't expect the money to be spent on Nugent's employee recruiting efforts. But Commissioner Dave Russell said he expected the money to be used for some personnel costs, including the salary of new jail administrator Michael Page.
Nugent explained that he needed startup money to pay for some of the personnel he is bringing on board to prepare the many details for a transition. "You just can't flip a switch on'' and take over the jail, he said.
As for the $3 million, Russell's motion for approval made it clear that the money was to be moved from one county reserve to another, but that the actual expenditures would come to the commission as line items.
And no money was to be spent until the county has brought construction professionals on board to detail just what is needed at the jail, County Administrator David Hamilton assured the board.
Stabins questioned why the interlocal agreement proposal was even on the commission's agenda Tuesday since it had not been talked about two weeks ago when the board agreed in spirit to the sheriff's takeover.
Stabins questioned why a three-year term for the agreement was needed when the commission had the statutory authority to decide when to appoint the sheriff to be chief correctional officer and when to change that designation.
An interlocal agreement wouldn't change that, the board was assured by assistant county attorney Jon Jouben.
Stabins called the issue a "deal killer'' and argued that it seemed that if county wanted to go out for private proposals on the jail in three months and the sheriff refused, the county would not be able to move forward. "I don't think that's something we want to handcuff ourselves to,'' he said.
And while it seemed to county officials that the board had the ultimate say, county attorney Garth Coller said that lawyers have different interpretations and the sheriff's attorney disagreed with the county on that point.
Stabins also objected to giving Nugent the remainder of the CCA budget for the final five weeks that the sheriff would operate the jail during the current fiscal year. The current CCA contract has saved the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that should be the county's savings, Stabins argued.
Chairman John Druzbick said that whatever Nugent gets in budget money that he doesn't spend by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, would get returned to the county.
Stabins also questioned why provisions in an earlier version of the interlocal agreement that required strict financial accounting by the sheriff were dropped in the final version.
Jouben said those items were lost during negotiations with the sheriff's attorney.
After the board approved the agreement, with Stabins opposed, Druzbick said, "sheriff, good luck, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart, sir.''
Nugent assured commissioners that money not spent would be returned and said that his past record shows that just because he has money doesn't mean he will spend it.
He also promised to account for the funds that he does spend and to provide good stewardship of the jail.
"We're a partner in this, not a for-profit company running it to milk it. We're a service organization,'' Nugent said.