BROOKSVILLE — It's right up there with schools and the Sheriff's Office as one of the most expensive operations in Hernando County. Nearly $7 out of every $100 property owners paid in taxes last year went there.
So it's no surprise that in these days of budget-cutting that Hernando County officials are looking to trim costs at the county jail.
In the coming weeks, as the debates over next year's tight county budget begin, these costs will be in the spotlight. The battle is already under way on two fronts.
First, the county has asked the private company that operates the jail, Corrections Corporation of America, to forgo its annual 4 percent increase in its contract cost. Hernando is asking that for the next fiscal year, CCA maintain the cost per-inmate per-day at the current $57.18.
But in recent days, another issue has flared up, this one concerning nearly a half-million dollars the county believes it is owed.
In 2007, the county signed off on a contract change that allowed CCA to double the number of inmates allowed in the old wing of the jail so that four would occupy each cell rather than two. That created 104 new beds, bringing the total to 756.
The idea then was that this would generate more money and help Hernando County offset its costs to CCA.
So far, it hasn't worked out that way.
In late May, county purchasing director Jim Gantt notified jail warden Russell Washburn that the county was withholding $422,000 from CCA's April billing of $881,524. That was how much the county said it had not been paid from October 2007 through April 2009.
CCA, predictably, disagreed. And late last month, the company "respectfully requested'' in a letter that Hernando County pay up.
CCA maintains that this issue was settled during talks in December and hints that the county could be in default of the contract for not seeking a solution in good faith negotiations.
"Because CCA and the county have always been able to work through any issues that have arisen under the contract, we are concerned that the county did not attempt to discuss this issue with us before withholding funds,'' wrote Natasha Metcalf, CCA's vice president of customer contracts.
Gantt said the county is owed 30 percent of the revenue generated since October 2007 for both in-county and out-of-county inmates using those 104 new beds.
He also disagrees that the issue was resolved last year.
"We've asked and asked and asked for how they account for this,'' he said. "We're not doing anything other than what the contract says.''
Gantt said he expects to respond to the CCA letter soon.
The cost of the contract and other jail-related budget items will total an estimated $13.29 million for this year, according to Gantt.
The estimated revenue generated from out-of-county inmates, the extra 104 beds and other miscellaneous sources is $1.47 million, so the net cost of the jail is $11.8 million.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.