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Jail operator assures Hernando it's not leaving

BROOKSVILLE — News this week that Corrections Corporation of America, the organization that runs the Hernando County Jail, was pulling out of a similar contract in the Florida Panhandle startled local officials.

Jim Gantt, Hernando County's director of purchasing and contracts, said Thursday he immediately wondered about any local impact, especially if the company was rethinking Florida contracts in light of the state's property-tax-revenue cutting.

But the local jail warden quickly responded that not only does CCA have no intention of pulling out of Hernando, it also wants to expand what it does in the county.

Warden Don Stewart again pitched the idea that CCA wants to work on a long-term relationship with the county that could include building the county a new jail and possibly much-needed judicial and courtroom space.

The exchange was prompted by a Tuesday press release by CCA stating the reasons the company was ending its contract to operate the Bay County Jail. CCA cited rising personnel costs.

After Stewart sent Gantt a copy of that release, Gantt e-mailed Stewart stating that with the new tax revenue rules, all Florida governments will be "hard-pressed to fund … operations."

"I cannot see the public accepting increases in jail cost as we have seen over the last five years," he said in the e-mail.

He asked Stewart: "Should the action with Bay County be taken as a heads up that the same thing may happen here? And, is it a good time for Hernando County to develop contingency budgets to operate the jail in some other fashion?"

Stewart's reply came late Wednesday.

He said the Bay County situation was not like Hernando County's. Hernando is still profitable, and the rise in area correctional salaries has slowed.

Jail and county officials met last week to discuss budgetary and other items. Stewart refers to that meeting in his e-mail, saying that CCA hopes to help cut costs and has "no plans or desire to leave."

Instead, he said, CCA would like to expand its Hernando operation "and we are willing to do so entirely at our expense."

He mentions that any facility owned by CCA would be a tax-generating business and puts the facility value between $60-million and $100-million. It would also benefit the county by creating 240 or more jobs that pay above the average for the area.

"Could we and should we also look at addressing some of the other needs such as additional courthouse space as a part of any future development?" Stewart asks, also noting that if CCA builds the facilities, Hernando County won't have to find the funding to do so in its budget.

For more than a year, Hernando officials have been talking about options to expand the jail when needed, to cut jail costs and find a way to meet demands for additional judicial space, according to deputy county administrator Larry Jennings.

Nothing has been formally presented by CCA about its offers to build a jail or other space for the county. Jennings said the county staff is still in the process of examining the financial implications of such an arrangement.

"It will all boil down to the financial aspects," he said.

Meanwhile, there also has been discussion and exploration of a site for the jail expansion, possibly on a property near the existing jail on Spring Hill Drive, according to County Commissioner Diane Rowden.

The last commission discussion about finding a place to expand judicial space centered on a location somewhere in downtown Brooksville, possibly through a public-private partnership, Jennings said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached

at behrendt@sptimes.com

or (352) 848-1434.

Jail operator assures Hernando it's not leaving 05/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008 10:07am]

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