BROOKSVILLE — Having seen earlier snapshots on just what is physically wrong with a portion of the Hernando County Jail, the County Commission approved a plan Tuesday to get the whole picture.
The commission approved a $239,306 contract to hire HDR Engineering Inc. to examine the structure from the electrical systems to the air conditioning, from the oldest section to the newest addition.
The goal is to determine just what repairs are needed to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the people living inside and the residents living outside the facility. Just as important, the report will tell Hernando officials just how much of the repair bill should be paid by Corrections Corporation of America for failing to properly maintain the facility.
During the commission meeting, Chairman John Druzbick announced that Sheriff Richard Nugent had just called to tell him that he was willing to return $500,000 to the county out of the planned jail budget.
Commissioners, who had a number of budget items on their agenda Tuesday, were pleased. Finding ways to plug a revenue shortfall that originally topped $10.3 million has been an ongoing project for county officials.
Nugent is set to take over the Hernando County Jail from CCA at the end of the month and his staff is in the final weeks of preparation for that transition.
Hiring the engineer was an important step, according to County Administrator David Hamilton. The firm, chosen on a rotating basis from the list of engineers the county uses for such projects, is supposed to examine the structure and systems, determine who is responsible for the problems, assess the cost and then manage the construction to make repairs, according to Lisa Hammond, the purchasing and contracts consultant hired by the clerk of the circuit court.
The funding for the engineering work comes out of the $3 million that the commission set aside for the project.
Commissioners also agreed to several other jail expenditures on Tuesday, including paying $156,200 to rekey the jail and $68,848 for ongoing jail repairs overseen by the county's facilities department.
After questions were raised by Commissioner Rose Rocco about the much-talked-about jail dishwasher, Jail Administrator Maj. Michael Page explained that bids for a dishwasher had been obtained and were under review by the county.
The sheriff's decision to turn back the $500,000 from his jail budget comes just weeks after the commission asked constitutional officers to help them make up the budget shortfall by cutting another 3 percent. The tax collector also offered another $100,000 cut, said George Zoettlein, director of the county budget office.
He also gave a brief overview of other budget changes, including restoring 26 positions slated for cuts into the spending plan (16 in parks and recreation and 10 in other areas), shifting an assistant county attorney paid through utilities back into the general fund and spending an additional $232,000 in state-mandated programs through health and human services.
Another possible cost-saving measure was proposed by Commissioner Jim Adkins, who wanted support at seeking proposals for legal services for the board even though the contract with county attorney Garth Coller doesn't run out for several months.
Rocco argued that the commissioners needed much more information before moving ahead with that idea. Commissioners Dave Russell and Druzbick said they were not being critical of Coller's job, but because of the difficult times, they had to be sure they were getting the best deal financially.
Coller said he understood and that he was confident the numbers would speak for themselves. The oft-criticized legal department just lost one of its assistant county attorneys last week when Erica Moore left for a job in St. Johns County. There are now two assistant county attorneys.
Some additional money could also be recovered by changing the way the budget reserve percentage is calculated, bringing in another $662,000 and reducing the current budget shortfall to about $1.3 million, Zoettlein said.
But Hamilton warned that every extra dollar spent out of reserves was shrinking a precious resource.
Hamilton gave the commission a brief overview of his initial thoughts of how to pare down the ranks of the county's managers by having just three layers of management and cutting back on salaries. He repeated plans to save a minimum of $500,000 through the plan and will unveil details at the Aug. 31 board meeting.
The sweeping changes are needed because there is nothing on the horizon indicating an economic turnaround that will save the county from hard budget choices into the future, Hamilton said.
"The bottom line,'' he said, "is that we still have to lower our bottom line.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.