Hernando County acted as an absentee landlord in its stewardship of the privately run county jail, allowing publicly owned property to deteriorate, okaying a poorly designed addition and failing to do even minimal inspections for a decade.
The result is a repair bill that could top millions of dollars and the end, at least for this year, of a proposed cost-saving initiative from Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent to assume operations of the jail from Corrections Corporation of America.
It's an embarrassment. Even with a contract that required CCA to do routine preventive maintenance, the county is ultimately responsible for the jail's disrepair.
Nugent's slide show to commissioners last week documented the decay: rusting doors and hinges; cracked walls; leaking ceilings; a metal balcony rusting from condensation from showers underneath; inadequate drainage; areas where electrical outlets and leaking water are side by side; and evidence standing water rises above the valves on external fuel storage tanks.
The conditions demonstrated a disregard for fixing problems as they arose and a poor design of an $11 million expansion in 2005. It rightly brought questions about shoddy contract work and, more to the point, how building inspectors could have approved the renovations as satisfactory. Clearly, there is no pride in ownership, an unfortunate trait even if most of the public will never see the inside of the place. Regardless, it is unsafe for employees and inmates alike and could pose a significant public safety hazard if the deterioration aided escape attempts.
County purchasing director Jim Gantt attempted to deflect responsibility toward CCA, but in the end he told commissioners to blame him. His boss, County Administrator David Hamilton, did just that by suspending Gantt for two weeks and calling for a review of his subordinate, the county's on-site contract monitor.
Hamilton characterized the jail conditions as "frankly, appalling'' and said it reminded him of another poorly administered public project: the long-delayed dredging of the Hernando Beach channel.
"Apparently, somebody else is always to blame,'' Hamilton said before demanding accountability from his staff.
He ordered an audit of Gantt's department and suggested the Public Safety Committee of the commission chairman and law enforcement, judicial and court officers meet more frequently in an attempt to be proactive on jail-related issues.
Hamilton and the commission are correct in their responses. A county forecasting a $4.7 million hole in its upcoming budget does not have the resources available for unforeseen repairs without delaying necessary capital spending elsewhere.
But the fixes are imperative. The alternatives are the risk of injury, potential liability and the unacceptable tag of being a willing slumlord.