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Transition team tries to zero in on cost of Hernando County Jail fixes

At the Hernando County Jail, rusty doors are among problems that include cracks, water damage and leaks. A transition team recently discovered a trap door that opens to wastewater.

HERNANDO COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE

At the Hernando County Jail, rusty doors are among problems that include cracks, water damage and leaks. A transition team recently discovered a trap door that opens to wastewater.

BROOKSVILLE — As officials dive into the transition of the county jail from private operation to a sheriff-run facility, some huge questions remain.

Just how major are structural and maintenance defects? How much will they cost to fix? And, most important to Hernando County taxpayers, who will pay?

Today, County Administrator David Hamilton and Sheriff Richard Nugent's jail transition team meet to get answers.

On Tuesday, when the County Commission decided to turn the jail over to Nugent, the money questions were uppermost in the commissioners' minds.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins, for one, balked at the $5 million Hamilton wants to set aside, especially since no one has done a detailed assessment. Hamilton, who had suggested using $3 million from county reserves and $2 million from the judicial center reserve, admitted the figure was just a guess.

Nugent told commissioners he wanted to see the money set aside now so there will be no surprises later. For his "peace of mind,'' he said he wanted to be sure the county would be ready to make whatever repairs are necessary to bring the facility up to a higher standard.

But what is that standard? How bad is the jail, really?

In Florida, jails must meet a set of guidelines called the Florida Model Jail Standard. In January, when the Hernando County Jail was last inspected, the facility passed every test.

Nearly everyone who has looked more closely, however, has questioned those grades.

Nugent has shown commissioners pictures of cracks in walls and floors, rusty doors, cloudy windows and water damage from leaks in the roof. The sheriff said Tuesday that every time his team visits the jail, it finds new problems, such as a trap door discovered under a rug in the administrative part of the building that opens into flowing wastewater.

Even the official Nugent has chosen to be the new jail administrator, former jail head for Pasco County Michael Page, was unimpressed.

Page worked for the state Department of Corrections when that agency conducted jail inspections, and has worked independently as a jail inspector. As Page put it, he has seen good and bad jails and "this one is not a particularly good one.''

Stabins asked when the commission would get a report from a licensed professional separating serious structural issues from cosmetic flaws so that the county would know how much of the bill will be the responsibility of Corrections Corporation of America, which has run the jail for 22 years.

Hamilton said the transition team will work on that immediately. Nugent agreed that a professional should be brought in quickly because, knowing how long things can take in government, he anticipated his staff would take over a "lousy facility'' at the end of August with a promise of better conditions in the works.

Stabins said it will be easier to negotiate with CCA now for its part of the cost than it will be after Aug. 26, when its contract with the county ends.

He said CCA officials have promised their cooperation. "They want a smooth transition. They don't want to burn any bridges,'' Stabins said.

County officials, who on May 25 will formalize the sheriff's role as chief correctional officer, want to be sure a lapse in maintenance and care of the jail will not happen again.

The proposed ordinance commissioners will consider would mandate that the sheriff make monthly inspections at the jail and include all requests for construction, repair or capital improvements in his annual budget.

Another provision would make it the sheriff's responsibility for the costs of "all repairs, improvements and maintenance including appropriate preventative maintenance.'' He would also be responsible for logging all maintenance activities and providing a copy to the County Commission monthly.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Rose Rocco said any repairs that are strictly cosmetic should be put on hold.

Nugent said serious structural flaws concerned him the most, since he is going to be placing his staff in the facility. He said demolition was "the only way this is going to be a five-star hotel'' and that "we're not talking about making it pretty.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Transition team tries to zero in on cost of Hernando County Jail fixes 05/13/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 8:30pm]
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