BROOKSVILLE — Sheriff Richard Nugent's announcement this week that he can run the Hernando County Jail more efficiently than the company that has been in charge for the past 22 years took many by surprise.
Not only has Nugent said for years that he wanted no part of the job, but Corrections Corporation of America told county officials last month that they expect to lose about $1.5 million this year.
So what can the sheriff do to turn around a money-losing situation?
Nugent intends to tell the County Commission on Tuesday that he will take over the jail for the current budgeted amount of $11.4 million, which he says will save the county an automatic annual increase built into its contract with CCA.
The county's contract with CCA runs through 2012, but there is a clause that allows either party to terminate the agreement with 120 days notice. Nugent said ideally he would like to take over the operation with the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Nugent would charge a flat fee for the jail operation and not an amount based on inmate numbers. He added that he expects to find plenty of other ways to save money at the jail.
As for the operation being a money loser, he said he doesn't buy it.
"That's absolutely laughable,'' Nugent said. "If that were the case, they'd be out of here.''
Hernando County Jail warden Russell Washburn said Wednesday that he could not comment on the loss figures his company presented and referred the issue to a CCA corporate spokesman, who did not return a call.
Washburn did say the first he heard about Nugent's plans was when the sheriff's office sent out a news release around 3 p.m. Tuesday.
While the news was unexpected, Washburn said, "Obviously with the current economic state, it's really not a surprise that our customers are looking at options.''
County officials in recent weeks have been peppering CCA with requests for information about the jail. Some of those have been answered with lists of employees and employee positions, but other operating costs are private, CCA officials have told the county.
CCA also has been negotiating with other county staffers to change the contract to allow the jail to house prisoners from the Virgin Islands. The company has been shopping around for inmates since late last year when federal immigration officials pulled their prisoners from Hernando to a new jail in Baker County.
On Tuesday, CCA official Natasha Metcalf wrote in an e-mail to County Administrator David Hamilton that the loss of those inmates "resulted in more than a 25 percent reduction in the total inmate population.
"While CCA has made every effort to return the detainees to the facility, it does not appear that they will be returning in the near future,'' she wrote.
Making matters worse for CCA, Hernando also is paying less per day per inmate than last year, and the number of local inmates is lower than projected.
Nugent said those numbers go up and down all the time. And he said he will look for ways to bring in more prisoners if commissioners accept his offer.
After talking to sheriffs who run county jails, Nugent said he is convinced he can be more efficient than CCA. He points to money the county can get from telephone revenues that now goes to CCA, as well as cutting costs through a separate contract to operate Breathalyzers.
Nugent also noted there are people who wind up in jail for doing something "dumb'' rather than because they are dangerous, and that he can cut costs by not having that type of inmate held in jail.
Also, the amount of time it takes to book that kind of prisoner can be cut, Nugent said, because unlike CCA, he has no incentive to keep them long enough to charge for a full day of incarceration.
Nugent also said he wouldn't assign another chief in his command structure to operate the facility but would use one of his three existing chiefs.
As for the 170 or so workers at the jail, the sheriff said he would consider bringing those people onto his staff if they meet his employment standards.
Not knowing what's in his proposal, Washburn said he couldn't comment on Nugent's statement that he can run the jail more efficiently.
As for CCA's next move, Washburn said company officials will be at the meeting on Tuesday to hear what Nugent and commissioners have to say.
"It's kind of early to really formulate any type of response,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434. Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.