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Without report, Hernando commissioners refuse to release jail money

BROOKSVILLE — Without a final report in hand, and without even having seen the preliminary report on the breadth of maintenance problems at the county jail, Hernando County commissioners on Tuesday were reluctant to release any of the $1.8 million it has withheld from Corrections Corporation of America.

The preliminary report from HDR Engineering has estimated that repairs at the jail will cost $14.9 million. The report also determined that CCA owes nearly $1 million for deferred maintenance.

CCA has demanded immediate payment of $1.8 million it says it is owed, but the commission voted unanimously to wait until Oct. 12, when more information is expected from the engineer.

The discussion erupted into a heated debate over who had received the report, when it was received and why it has not yet been distributed to commissioners. Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he tried to get a copy of the report Friday, and he questioned why County Administrator David Hamilton did not release it.

"Why the secrecy?'' he asked.

County officials, jail administrator Michael Page and County Attorney Garth Coller all explained that the report, which is lengthy, is peppered with information that would compromise security at the jail. Those sensitive pieces and schematics of the jail will be redacted before the report is released to the public under the state Sunshine Law.

But Coller said commissioners should see the original document because the redacted information might help them make decisions about maintenance needs.

Stabins angrily questioned why Lisa Hammond, the purchasing consultant employed by the clerk of the Circuit Court, has had the document for four days and commissioners and Hamilton have not seen it.

"A consultant is given more access than a county commissioner,'' Stabins said. He went on to ask about whether the details in the report have been changed since it was received by the county on Thursday.

"Something stinks in this,'' Stabins said.

Stabins' questioning at one point grew so contentious that Clerk of the Court Karen Nicolai came into the meeting to defend Hammond.

"I take great offense with the way she is being treated,'' Nicolai said. Nicolai praised Hammond for her work on two contentious issues, the Hernando Beach Channel dredge and the jail.

Stabins said, "I'm not going to apologize for being frustrated,'' and noted that Hamilton could have averted the whole confrontation by simply telling commissioners that the report was in and that sheriff's officials were blotting out details from the public copy for security reasons.

Hamilton said he send out an e-mail to commissioners late last week warning them that the engineering report would be part of Tuesday's discussion.

Hammond apologized to commissioners for not getting the report to them sooner. She said that, while she got it on Thursday, she didn't have time to read it until Saturday. She expressed concern that some of the details contained in it, if released to the public, "would compromise the security of the jail.''

Commission chairman John Druzbick used his gavel to break up the discussion several times. At one point, Druzbick said, "The blame game stops.''

Stabins said he was frustrated that the county sought a third engineer to look at the jail when the previous two did not find major structural problems, especially because the bill is now five times the $3 million that the county has set aside to work on the jail.

But Druzbick defended the hiring of HDR Engineering as "a totally separate set of eyes looking at different things.'' The latest firm is examining every building at the jail, including the original 1988 building, the 1995 annex and the 2005 addition.

All systems are also under review, including security, heating and air, plumbing, fire protection and electrical, areas not examined in the other reports.

Commissioners decided to have a larger discussion about the process for receiving and distributing information to the board during their scheduled workshop Oct. 5.

The price tag will get more discussion on Oct. 12. Hammond said "the number was a surprise'' and that she was "taken aback'' by the $14.9 million estimate.

Druzbick said that, with a mix of engineering opinions on what needs to be done at the facility, he expected a price tag somewhat lower than what HDR has said in the preliminary draft.

CCA operated the jail for 22 years before ending the contract this summer. Sheriff Richard Nugent took over the operation late last month after making it clear in several public meetings that the county, and not his office, was responsible for bringing the facility up to an acceptable level of maintenance.

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

Without report, Hernando commissioners refuse to release jail money 09/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 8:13pm]
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