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PRIVATE SECURITY REPLACES DEPUTIES

The sheriff hopes to save up to $176,000 a year on staffing atthe courthouse.

Sheriff Richard Nugent's cost-cutting took shape this week as guards with gold badges and shiny whistles began to replace sworn deputies at courthouse security posts.

The sheriff signed a $220,000 contract in August with Wackenhut Corp., a private security firm, to operate the two checkpoints in the Government Center. He estimates it will save between $142,000 and $176,000 a year as six deputies from the courthouse fill vacant positions in patrol units. Nine deputies who act as courtroom bailiffs will remain, as required by state law.

The move makes Hernando the only county in the Tampa Bay area with privatized courthouse security - and it comes at a delicate time given the fatal shooting at the Pinellas County Courthouse in May 2008 and the scare at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in August, when a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun slipped through an X-ray machine checkpoint.

"We feel comfortable they will be able to provide a level of service equal to ourselves," said Royce Decker, a bureau chief at the Sheriff's Office who oversees judicial services.

The private guards began training alongside the deputies Tuesday, learning security protocols and equipment. The transition will likely take two weeks.

The Sheriff's Office secured the contract by piggybacking on an existing one between Wackenhut and Orange County. That allowed it to bypass the bidding process required for government contracts. Decker said the Sheriff's Office didn't have time to go through the lengthy bidding process as it prepared a budget recommendation.

The three-year contract with the Palm Beach Gardens-based firm calls for one armed guard and one unarmed guard at each of the two security checkpoints on the first floor of the government center.

In addition, an armed guard will monitor the security cameras in the basement control room and an armed supervisor will lead the team. The guards can detain people but will not have authority to chase people or make arrests.

Wackenhut hired Dennis Larberg, a retired sheriff's deputy who served as a bailiff for Brooksville's Chief Judge Daniel Merritt Sr., to serve as supervisor.

The supervisor and co-supervisor will make $42,960 a year and the armed and unarmed guards will make $33,520 a year, according to the contract. The Sheriff's Office estimates a sworn deputy costs an average $66,000 a year.

Of the six veteran deputies getting re-assigned, four will return to patrol duties, one will work with the warrants division and one will fill an inmate transport position, Decker said.

An unknown in the cost equation is overtime, which is paid to Wackenhut at a higher hourly rate. The private guards will leave at 5 p.m. each day but court proceedings often go later and some are held at night.

"We hope for minimal (overtime) at best," Decker said.

Nugent estimated more cost savings in June when he planned to privatize the deputies who transport prisoners but Merritt, the administrative judge, rejected the idea.

Merritt said he and other judges were initially concerned about the security changes but he understands the pressures on the Sheriff's Office.

"I'm willing to give it a chance," he said. "We were happy with the system before but I understand the economic realities."

Alex Funtow, the Wackenhut training director from Tampa, observed his guards as they learned their new jobs this week. He said the guards already have received two weeks of training and many are former Hernando deputies with extensive experience.

The firm is also considering altering the entrances to the government center by installing barriers to make the atrium area more secure. "This building is not conducive to safety and security," Funtow said.

For years, the firm has provided courthouse security in Orange County and recently signed a contract with Sumter County to work security checkpoints.

"With (government) budget cuts, we can provide the same service at a lower cost," he said.

But the company's history is also riddled with problems. The company and its parent, Danish-based Group 4 Falck AS, is one of the largest contractors who manage security at government facilities in the United States and Iraq.

Earlier this year, Miami-Dade County commissioners canceled a contract with Wackenhut to guard transportation centers after an audit revealed the company overbilled the county more than $6.2 million.

In 2008, Florida Power & Light was fined $130,000 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when an investigation revealed that Wackenhut guards repeatedly slept on the job at the company's Turkey Point nuclear plant.

Staff Researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

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