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Disputed lockup opens quietly

The new multimillion- dollar county jail became home to nearly 200 inmates over the weekend after two convoys of buses hauled them across the county in a quiet, unpublicized move.

Opening day came three years after a circuit judge ordered Citrus County to build a new lockup to ease overcrowding at the 77-bed jail in downtown Inverness.

The court order started the clock ticking on almost two years of political controversy that sullied the reputations of virtually every public official who uttered the word "jail."

The uproar over the size, location and financing of the facility has quieted in the past year, though, and moving day was uneventful.

Inmates from the main jail in Inverness and the temporary detention center near the county fairgrounds were transported to Lecanto between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, said Gail Tierney, spokeswoman for the Citrus County Sheriff's Office.

"For security reasons it wasn't something we were publicizing," she said.

The 194 inmates were served their first meal of chili and submarine sandwiches in the jail at lunchtime.

The jail, which cost $9-million to build, had been planned since 1989, when the state Department of Corrections sued to force the county to solve its problems with inmate overcrowding.

In October 1989, Circuit Judge William Edwards ordered the county to convert the county auditorium into a 100-bed temporary lockup that was quickly dubbed "the jailatorium." He also ordered that plans for a new permanent jail be expedited.

The new jail has room for 400 inmates, but at this point it is staffed for only 200, Tierney said.

Tierney said the old jail and the temporary jail had less than 36,000 square feet combined. The new jail has more than 97,000 square feet, she said.

Officials still are deciding what to do with the old jail in downtown Inverness.

Earlier this year, Sheriff Charles Dean said he may be able to convert the building into a jail for juveniles. A 40-bed facility in Ocala that houses inmates who are 18 and younger is perpetually overcrowded and has long waiting lists for entry.

Dean will be discussing the idea with the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services and the juvenile justice coordinator for Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter counties.

But before moving any further, Dean said he needs two things: time and a product he can sell.

Dean said inmates soon will scrub walls, paint and otherwise tidy up the old lockup.

When proposing the idea to the County Commission, Dean said a juvenile facility could produce a profit for the county. The commission recommended that he explore the option further.

The county budget includes $150,000 to be used over the next year to transform the temporary jail south of Inverness back into a county auditorium.

After Edwards issued his 1989 order to ease jail overcrowding, the County Commission spent the next year hearing arguments about whether the jail should be built in Inverness or Lecanto.

Dean had wanted the new facility built on Cooter Pond in Inverness, a site that would have required the razing of a dozen homes in a predominantly black neighborhood. The downtown business community supported that plan, but the Inverness City Council blocked it.

The County Commission then chose the site in Lecanto across from the government complex on County Road 491. To acquire the land, the commission approved a swap of 100 acres it owned down the road for the 100 acres owned by the Rolling Rock Trust.

Rolling Rock trustee Michael Mountjoy initially refused to identify the principals of the trust. State law requires that government know who owns the land it is acquiring. To get around that requirement, a three-party land swap was arranged.

State Attorney Brad King filed suit to block the transaction, suggesting that it violated the spirit of the law. Rolling Rock Trust identified its ownership.

A grand jury investigated the land swap and issued a report chastising the County Commission for trying to elude the disclosure requirement.

Staff writer Jim Ross contributed to this report.