BROOKSVILLE — Within hours of the County Commission's decision Tuesday to negotiate changes in a contract with the jail operator at a public meeting, company officials were flying to Hernando County to make a deal.
Corrections Corporation of America officials, however, insisted that they meet with commissioners in private.
When county administration heard, deputy administrator Larry Jennings sent out a memo to commissioners Wednesday morning.
"Since the commission has already set a public negotiation session with CCA for Tuesday, we recommend commission members do not meet individually with CCA prior to that meeting,'' Jennings wrote.
Now, it is unclear whether that public meeting will ever happen.
Four of the five commissioners said Wednesday they agreed to not meet with CCA. Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who has been talking to CCA about a deal to save money on the jail operation that could save county worker jobs, met with CCA officials Wednesday.
"I guess I've been a bad boy,'' Stabins said after the meeting.
Why meet contrary to Jennings' memo?
"I'm just trying to get a balanced budget,'' Stabins said. "I'm just trying to solve problems.''
The CCA representatives met Wednesday afternoon with county officials including Jim Gantt, purchasing director. They explained the new way they wanted to figure how to account for in-county and out-of-county inmates, which is the basis of how much the county pays for CCA's contract each year.
But on the issue of attending a special meeting Tuesday, they told Gantt, "In the interest of continuing the good faith dialogue that is occurring between the parties with the goal of reaching a fair resolution, we suggest that these discussions proceed outside of the commission meeting until a final agreement is reached,'' wrote Bart E. VerHulst, vice president of federal and local customer relations.
Gantt said that county officials were discussing whether to cancel the Tuesday meeting. County Administrator David Hamilton could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Stabins said he met with CCA officials because he wanted to be sure he understood the information he had been given earlier, details such as that the county could save another half million dollars on jail costs if it agrees to extend its contract with CCA for three years.
The contract runs out in 2010 and Hamilton has said he planned to put the jail operation out to bid while also studying whether it would be cheaper to run the jail through the county or the sheriff.
The company has run the jail for 20-plus years and Hamilton voiced concern that, without seeking other alternatives, the county has allowed the firm to have a "monopoly.''
Steve Owen, spokesman for the Tennessee-based CCA, said officials from the company, "we're always in dialogue with our customers'' and that they were "negotiating in good faith.''
Owen explained that the company wanted individual meetings with commissioners to work through their concerns before bringing an actual proposal to the full commission.
Budget talks with CCA had hit an impasse over two issues. The county decided to withhold $422,000 in payments to the firm over a disagreement on how much CCA should be paying the county for filling extra beds the county and CCA agreed to add to existing cells in 2007.
In addition, Hamilton asked CCA to forgo the 4 percent annual increase in its costs to the county set out in the contract, which would amount to an estimated $467,503 increase.
The proposal Gantt discussed with CCA on Wednesday would have the company charging Hernando the 4 percent, raising the per diem cost for in-county inmates from $57.18 to $59.47. The amount the county collects for out-of-county inmates, at $8.39 per day, would not change, but there would be some accounting changes based on the number of inmates.
If the changes were agreeable to both parties, CCA would forgive the $422,000 that the county withheld this year, Gantt said.
Gantt did not discuss extending the contract with the CCA representatives. No specific proposal has been given in writing, even though Gantt had requested one.
The four county commissioners who declined to meet with CCA each want to see an agreement on the contract. They said they understood why individual meetings with the company were discouraged after they decided that the best course was for all of them to talk to CCA at the same time in a public meeting.
"The problem is that we've been getting four or five points of view and we need just one,'' said Commission Chairman Dave Russell. "I think the meeting will bring clarity if we're all there at the same time.''
"To me it's less than ethical to meet with them prior to them coming to the full board,'' said Commissioner Rose Rocco. "We'll have the opportunity to ask our questions there. I just didn't see the purpose.''
Commissioner John Druzbick agreed.
"We're going to be doing this in the public,'' he said. "I don't feel comfortable trying to negotiate that contract behind closed doors.''
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he had set a meeting with CCA and then canceled it, opting instead to write a letter to the firm asking it to consider not collecting its 4 percent increase in the contract.
"It would not hurt CCA, but it would be a good gesture,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.