BROOKSVILLE — Promising commissioners the same level of efficiency he has achieved in his own agency, Sheriff Richard Nugent made his pitch to take over the county jail to Hernando County commissioners on Tuesday.
Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the jail now, pleaded its own case for keeping the contract, citing a 22-year history of working well with Hernando.
Company officials also urged the board to be certain it had full information before making a decision. Reversing a long-held position, the Nashville-based company offered to open its books to allow the sheriff and the county to examine operational costs, something it has refused to do before, citing confidentiality concerns.
Commissioners peppered Nugent with questions such as how he figures he could run the facility cheaper than CCA does, and how the county could afford the liability that comes with operating a jail.
Board members gave staff until April 13 to look at CCA's books and answer a number of questions before reporting back on the proposals. The county's contract with CCA expires in 2012, but either side can terminate it with 120 days' notice.
Nugent, who has adamantly opposed taking over the jail for years, said current economic conditions have made it necessary for him to rethink his position. In the last 10 years, Nugent pointed out, his budget had increased 83.4 percent. During the same period, CCA's increased 194 percent.
Nugent said he could do better and he asked commissioners to turn the jail over to him for the same budgeted amount promised CCA this year, $11.4 million. If the county stayed with CCA, he pointed out, the automatic increase in its contract would kick in for the next budget year.
Nugent said he hopes to save money for the county in the future but he expects to need more money in the first year for startup costs and because he does not yet have enough information about day-to-day operational costs.
In a letter delivered to the county Monday, CCA official Tommy Alsup cautioned that moving the jail to the sheriff's control would be expensive.
Nugent and officials in Bay County have said that moving from CCA control to the sheriff there more than a year ago allowed the sheriff there to return $2 million to Bay County.
Alsup said budget documents show, "Bay County has spent at least an additional $3 million (perhaps substantially more) for the sheriff to operate the jail than they would have paid CCA.'' In addition, Alsup warned that Hernando County would be responsible for all inmate litigation and for replacing all of the equipment in the jail because what is there belongs to CCA.
Brooksville resident Dick Ross said any money saved by a jail transfer should be used to restore crime-prevention, such as the DARE drug education program, lost in budget cuts.
Hernando Beach resident Lisa Hammond said that unlike a private company, the sheriff would have no incentive to keep people in jail. Like hotels, she said, private jails only make money when beds are full.
"I think the sheriff makes a good case,'' county Commissioner Dave Russell said. Without actual figures to examine, Commissioner Rose Rocco said she wanted more details, starting with its liability.
Nugent said added liability coverage would be possible for a nominal amount. But commissioners wanted more information on that, the inventory of items in the jail that belong to CCA, medical costs and other issues.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.