BROOKSVILLE — The annual surprise notice from the state Department of Juvenile Justice has gotten increasingly unpalatable for Hernando County commissioners.
Earlier this month, the commission heard the state agency had completed its 2011 "adjustment" of fees the county owes for incarcerating juvenile offenders in Marion County and the county owed nearly $330,000 more than it had budgeted.
To pay that shortfall and still make this year's payments, the commission increased this year's budget for the program to $927,000.
"We've got to find a different way to do this,'' Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said after hearing the news. "We can't afford this. This is just going to kill us.''
When the same thing happened last year, commissioners dug their heels in and refused to pay up. Ultimately the county did have to pay, though.
For the last fiscal year, the county is now paying an average of $370 per day to incarcerate juveniles in Marion County, according to Veda Ramirez, health and human services manager. That compares to between $35 and $45 per day to jail adults.
This year's heartburn over the cost has taken a different turn. The county has now opened discussions with Sheriff Al Nienhuis about the possibility of handling the juvenile offenders locally at the county jail.
The issue is complex.
Currently the Hernando County Detention Center houses youthful offenders who have committed serious crimes and, despite being under the age of 18, have been adjudicated to be adults.
Other juveniles who commit serious crimes are sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice detention center in Ocala. For more minor offenses, juveniles are generally released to their parents, Nienhuis explained.
The rules for jailing youthful offenders adjudicated as adults are different than the rules for jailing adults. The protocols for jailing juveniles are even more stringent than either of those to ensure there is no contact between adult and juvenile inmates.
"It's a zero failure mission. We can't have a problem with a juvenile,'' Nienhuis said. That need for precision can get expensive.
Any discussion about the Sheriff's Department taking on the extra responsibilities of juvenile detention would require discussion about facility changes and staffing issues. He pointed out the current jail staff is thin and taking on something new, duties with even more stringent rules, would mean beefing up staff.
Nienhuis said his staff is just starting to explore those issues.
While the recent commission discussion has moved the topic to a front burner, Nienhuis had talked with his command staff about the issue several weeks ago. Already they have been gathering information from other counties that have opted to house their own juvenile offenders.
The current jail site has two separate buildings that are not permanently housing inmates and Nienhuis said that was one plus, but there was much more to be considered.
"There is nothing I would like to do more than to help but it's way too early to say. We're looking into it, looking into it hard. We'd like to be a part of the solution,'' he said.
Dukes said this week that he wanted to see a local solution so that there could be local control over the expense and to avoid the costly, mid-year surprises. "You can't budget and then just drop these figures in out of the sky,'' he said. "I'm hoping we can find out a way to do this.''
County Commissioner Dave Russell was also hopeful because he was concerned that the DJJ demands were just one of several unfunded state mandates the county will struggle with in the future even as officials are trying to get a handle on their own revenue shortfall.
"This is strangling us and will continue to do so,'' Russell said at last week's commission meeting.
Hernando County officials aren't the only ones upset by the payments to the DJJ. Hernando has joined with other counties in litigation over payments to the state agency for previous fiscal years. The cases question the state agency's methodology for setting the amount of the bills, among other legal issues.
Those actions are winding their way through the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.