BROOKSVILLE — On second thought, you can keep it.
That was the message from Sheriff Richard Nugent to the County Commission on Tuesday as he flip-flopped on his surprise request several weeks ago to take over operations of the county jail from a private company.
Nugent was supposed to tell the board on Tuesday how he could take over the county jail, run it better and save money. Instead, he told them that because the jail is so rife with structural, plumbing and electrical problems, he wants no part of it.
On the projector, sheriff's official Bill Kicklighter shared pictures of some of what Nugent and top county officials saw last week in a tour of the jail. Photo after photo showed rusting doors and hinges, cracks in walls and floors, deteriorating windows and water damage throughout.
Kicklighter said that a trash bag set to catch rainwater dripping from the damaged roof was visible in the inmate housing area.
Nugent told commissioners that he had more than 200 such photos showing not just maintenance problems but serious design flaws. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist (to see) it is a poorly constructed and poorly maintained building," he said.
Commissioners thanked Nugent for prompting the study that discovered the dismal state of the jail. But the pictures were just part of the shock. They also learned that Hernando's facilities managers have not visited the jail in the last decade.
Early estimates at what it would take to fix the problems came in at more than $2 million, and that was on the low side, Nugent said.
"This is the responsibility of the county. We own the building," said Commissioner Rose Rocco.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he wanted an investigation on how things could have gotten so bad. "This is nothing but an accountability problem from the get-go," he said, noting that the county was "asleep at the wheel. Taxpayers take the hit again."
Commission Chairman John Druzbick, who went on last week's tour, said "to use the word outrage is probably too simple."
County Administrator David Hamilton called Jim Gantt, county purchasing director, to the microphone, pointing out he has been the jail contract administrator for years.
Gantt read contract language between Hernando County and the jail operator, Corrections Corporation of America, verbatim, emphasizing that CCA was responsible for repairs and maintenance except for major items. The firm would present a list of needed repairs each year and the county would take care of them.
The county did a major roof repair in 2005-06 and has replaced air conditioners, he said. Since 2005, the county has paid for $230,000 in repairs at the facility. "Somebody needs to tell us if it needs to be done," Gantt said.
As for inferior design, "our building department reviewed it. … I don't know why they signed off."
But Gantt also said that if the commission needed someone to blame, they could blame him because he was, he said, "operating a jail based on budgetary constraints."
Druzbick said he knew that CCA bore some of the responsibility but so did the county. "Something's fallen down" in the accountability for keeping up the facility, he said.
Hamilton told Gantt to sit down and told him to cancel plans he had just announced to meet with an architect about some of the issues in a portion of the jail.
Hamilton also said he took issue with Gantt's assertion that the county is not responsible for the condition of the facility. "Major are the deficiencies," he said.
"Based on a review of the facility, the condition of the jail … is unacceptable," Hamilton said. He went on to outline what he has done and what he plans to do to change that.
Hamilton said he had asked the county's budget office director to find at least $1 million for projects there. He plans to move forward with discussions of ankle monitors to get more inmates out of the facility, talks that had stalled while Nugent explored his options.
At their next meeting, the commission will discuss CCA's request to build a new perimeter fence around the jail, a project the company wants the county to pay a portion of if Hernando and CCA don't stay in a long-term contract arrangement.
Hamilton also suggested more frequent meetings of the public safety committee, suggested that commissioners take Pasco County up on their offer of tours at their jail and noted that in the fall, the county will explore all possible jail operations scenarios in anticipation of the CCA contract coming up for renewal in 2011.
"This will now be a high priority and it needs to be a high priority," he said.
Adkins asked for copies of all previous inspection reports. "I want to get to the bottom of this," he said. "This is not right."
Hernando County Jail Warden Russell Washburn told the commission that the entire discussion of jail operations has been a "learning experience" and he hoped that everyone can work together to make the changes needed.
"We're not in a position to point fingers," he said. "I'm not sure that's productive."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.