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Hernando County Commission accepts sheriff's offer to operate jail

BROOKSVILLE — After months of discussion and twists and turns along the way, the County Commission on Tuesday unanimously chose the sheriff to operate the Hernando County Jail.

The turnover will occur on Aug. 27, the day after Corrections Corporation of America leaves the facility it has run for 22 years in the hands of Sheriff Richard Nugent.

Tuesday's vote was an informal acceptance of Nugent's offer to run the jail, with the official act of legally establishing the sheriff as the county's chief correctional officer to take place at the commission's next meeting.

Talks about control of the 876-bed facility have been going on for several months. Nugent at first offered to run the facility for the current $11 million annual budget, but he withdrew that offer last month when he found the jail complex riddled with maintenance and structural defects.

Two weeks ago, when CCA gave the county notice that it would end its contract in 120 days, County Administrator David Hamilton invited Nugent back into the discussions.

The sheriff told commissioners that he did some "soul searching'' and concluded that once again offering to run the jail was "the right way to go for the county.''

Nugent repeated his past assertions that he will operate the facility "better and more cost effectively.'' He spoke about changing the culture of the jail employees, finding efficiencies to reduce costs, treating the employees, inmates and their families with respect and dignity and creating programs to reduce recidivism.

Nugent vowed to cut the booking time so that people able to bond out can do so quickly. He also agreed to push the development of an ankle monitoring system to cut the number of inmates and the cost of housing them. He spoke about creating inmate work crews. And he vowed to try to bring in outside prisoners, which will help pay the bills.

By taking over the facility and working more closely with both the county's judiciary and with the Clerk of the Circuit Court, Nugent predicted more cooperation and more efficiency.

Nugent's presentation also touched on the daunting number of things that would have to happen in the 108 remaining days of the transition.

The day after CCA gave its notice to the county, Nugent assembled a team to prepare for the transition. He brought on board a contract jail administrator, Michael Page, who is the former Pasco County Jail commander.

Page, who also worked as a jail inspector both for the Department of Corrections and as a consultant, told commissioners he was up for the challenge. After touring the Hernando jail, he confirmed that the facility had some major problems but he also said he looked forward to the challenge of getting everything in order at the jail.

Nugent outlined the steps ahead including beginning the hiring process to staff the facility. He encouraged all of CCA's 170 employees to apply if they wanted to work for him.

Another critical step is to work with the county and CCA to identify what equipment and materials at the jail belong to CCA and what belongs to the county. Commissioners agreed to give Nugent nearly $850,000 up front to outfit the jail.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins told Nugent that the money must go for that purpose and no other and that his vote for the sheriff's take-over depended on that.

Stabins repeated his past criticism that Hamilton's actions caused CCA to pull out of the jail and put the county into the situation of having to find another operator. He said the facility should now be known as Mr. Hamilton's Jail.

He expressed concern that Nugent could meet his prediction of saving the county money and added, "I hope we're going to make this work for the taxpayer.''

"We're all looking for the same goal,'' Nugent said. "To save money.''

Hamilton had recommended that the commission set aside $3 million from reserves and another $2 million from the judicial center fund to be sure that there were monies available for needed jail renovations. Nugent repeated that he needed that for his peace of mind.

But Chief Judge Daniel Merritt balked at that, saying that he was afraid that if the county raided the judicial fund for $2 million, he was worried they would keep tapping the money for the entire $18.6 million set aside there for needed new courtroom space.

Merritt reminded commissioners that he had been seeking new courtroom space since 2000 and was always "asked to make do and were put off ... Maybe it's time for somebody else to make do,'' he said.

Pitting the sheriff's needs against those of the judiciary wasn't right, Merritt argued. "We both need adequate funding and we both need adequate facilities to do our jobs,'' he said.

In their motion to give Nugent the jail, the commission also decided they would not tap the judicial center fund.

Nugent expressed some concern about that but also noted that, after the extensive conversation about the need for the county to fix its jail up to a proper standard, he was comfortable that they would take care of the facility's needs.

"At least you're on notice that it's your building and you need to make it right,'' Nugent said.

Hamilton promised that officials would meet later this week to talk about the many outstanding issues involved with the jail transition including getting a handle on just what the facility needs to bring it up to the proper standard. More information will be coming back to the board on that topic soon, he said.

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

Hernando County Commission accepts sheriff's offer to operate jail 05/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 9:18pm]
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