BROOKSVILLE — Reversing his long-held position, Hernando County Sheriff Richard Nugent said Tuesday he wants to take over operations of the county jail from the Corrections Corporation of America.
Nugent said he will officially pitch what he sees as a money-saving proposal to county commissioners at their regular meeting Tuesday.
Nugent's about-face is surprising since he has consistently rejected the notion of managing the facility. "I've always been opposed to running the jail when times were good," he said. "But tough times make for tough decisions."
CCA officials did not return phone calls to comment, but Hernando County purchasing director Jim Gantt said the warden told him that CCA workers learned about Nugent's proposal during a staff meeting Tuesday.
County Commissioner Jeff Stabins also was caught by surprise. He said he learned of the proposal during a Tuesday afternoon meeting with the sheriff.
"I certainly have an open mind about it,'' said Stabins, who pushed during last year's budget to renegotiate the contract with CCA. Because of that effort and others, the jail budget dropped from $12.7 million to $11.4 million this year.
During those negotiations, Hernando gave up to CCA all revenue collected for housing federal prisoners in exchange for paying a lower price per inmate per day.
Late last year, federal officials pulled out all the federal prisoners and sent them to a new facility elsewhere in Florida, resulting in a huge financial hit for CCA.
Meanwhile, the local inmate population began to fall, reducing the amount the county has been paying CCA. Those savings are estimated by county officials as being from $800,000 to $1 million.
Because of those lower costs, Stabins said he is reluctant to hand over to Nugent all of those savings if the sheriff takes over the jail. Stabins said he hopes there is room for more negotiating, but Nugent said no way.
"I'm not going to be flexible on this because we're taking over a responsibility from the county,'' he said. "We're taking all the risk in this."
Nugent also said it is unclear how much CCA really spends to run the jail since much of that information is proprietary and secret, and he isn't sure what his startup and operational costs will be for the first year.
"We're going to be aggressive about bringing federal prisoners back into the county,'' he said, noting that by accomplishing that, the county would receive all the revenue rather than just the fraction the county used to receive.
Ironically, Gantt said, CCA has been pursuing a similar course.
CCA officials, he said, told him that they have been working on bringing up to 60 male inmates from the Virgin Islands. That would require about $430,000 in security upgrades, they said.
CCA sent a letter to the county on Tuesday asking to speak to the commissioners at their March 23 meeting about amending their contract to require Hernando to repay part of the cost for improvements if the county and CCA parted ways during the next two years.
Nothing in the letter indicates CCA knew of Nugent's bombshell announcement.
Nugent said he began researching taking over the jail about three months ago, seeking information from officials in Hillsborough, Sumter and Bay counties, all with jails run by their respective sheriff's departments.
In the end, Nugent was convinced his agency could run the jail more efficiently and for less money.
"We're cognizant of the county's (financial) situation," he said. "And we came to the conclusion there was a chance for dramatic savings at the jail with us operating it."
The major element, he said, was that unlike CCA, the sheriff's office would run the jail for a fixed cost, rather than a pay-per-inmate basis. The county could save money because the amount being paid would stay fixed, rather then rise if the number of inmates climbed.
CCA took over operations in 1988, making Hernando only the second county in Florida at the time to have a private company manage its jail.
Locally, Hernando is one of the few counties to allow a private company to manage its jail. The Sheriff's offices in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties all handle operations at their respective facilities. CCA runs the Citrus County jail.
Nugent has been critical of the company before, particularly in 2006 following a long list of serious incidents at the jail, including the suicide of three inmates who apparently had not been properly monitored, several escapes by inmates and the inappropriate transfer and release of several prisoners.
But not until Tuesday had Nugent suggested publicly that he wanted to assume responsibility for running the jail.
Nugent emphasized that this proposal was more about cost-savings than criticism of CCA.
"This is just business ... it comes down to dollars and cents," Nugent said. "We had issues with CCA years ago and we resolved those issues."
Commission chairman John Druzbick said he knew talks with the sheriff were in the works and that Nugent has been interested in the concept since other county sheriffs successfully run their jails. By holding the line on the budget amount, "that will save us money right off,'' he said.
The timing for the discussion seems right since the county is looking at another dismal revenue year. "It's a difficult time. We need to look at everything,'' Druzbick said. "We need to have as many options available to us as possible.''