Pasco sheriff raises alarm about jail crowding and funding

County administrator acknowledges a shortfall of between $20 million to $30 million.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco told commissioners that the jail expansion needs their attention.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco told commissioners that the jail expansion needs their attention.
Published Dec. 8, 2021|Updated Dec. 12, 2021

NEW PORT RICHEY — The need for more jail space and the money to build it are an old story in fast-growing Pasco County.

But solving the problem can’t wait any longer, Sheriff Chris Nocco told commissioners this week.

“This has been an issue since the early 2000s,” Nocco said Tuesday. “It’s not going to go away. In some way, somehow it’s going to have to be dealt with.”

While he said he is happy to manage the jail for the commissioners, “I just want to bring it forward because it’s your jail.”

In 2018, Pasco voters approved a bond issue that is expected to raise $132 million for a jail expansion. In recent months, Nocco has sent a letter and held meetings with commissioners and his top officials to drive home concerns that the expansion isn’t progressing as expected and is instead facing a financial shortfall that will scale back the project.

The bond issue was supposed to bring the jail in Central Pasco another 1,000 beds, but now only 540 are expected, making the expansion inadequate to meet the county’s current needs before it even gets started, Nocco said in his presentation. The current bed capacity for the jail is 1,432. But jail officials have had to manage hundreds more inmates than that at times. A temporary addition expanded capacity but it is years past its expected lifespan.

A master plan done several years ago showed a need for 2,535 beds by 2024.

Officials said they spend more than $3 million a year to send overflow inmates to jails in Hernando and other nearby counties.

Overcrowded jail facilities bring management problems and liability issues that could present other long-term financial risks, Nocco warned.

County administrator Dan Biles said that the cost of steel and other supplies for the expansion has escalated by 45 percent. The contract to build the expanded facility will come before commissioners early in 2022 with completion expected in 2024. He told commissioners that he hopes to bring a financial plan to pay for the project to the board in the coming months.

Nocco has also expressed concern that his staff was not involved in setting financial expectations for the jail expansion when the bond issue was proposed. Running the expanded jail will require another 250 employees and cost an additional $40 million, he said.

He asked the county to budget the money needed to make up the difference between the actual cost of the addition and the rising material costs and to find the funding needed to bring the expansion up to the full 1,000 new beds originally projected.

In addition, he wants to see the county immediately begin planning for an additional expansion as Pasco’s overall population growth makes it clear that still more jail beds will be needed in the future.

Nocco explained that he has done his best to cut costs and work on programs that help inmates improve their chances of a productive life after incarceration. But he said there are few other places for finding the funding necessary. Operating the jail costs roughly $50 million annually, he said.

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The sheriff’s budget does get help from the county’s annual growth. Traditionally, he is awarded 50 percent of the property tax money collected from new construction and increased values. In the current year’s budget that increase topped $12 million.

Commissioners said they want to work with Nocco but gave no specific commitment.

Commissioner Jack Mariano suggested that the local money that the county will get through the federal opioid settlement might be helpful. Commissioner Christina Fitzpatrick asked for information on federal COVID-19 assistance. Biles said that $14 million is set aside for the jail from the American Rescue Plan.

Commissioner Ron Oakley said that he is grateful that Pasco residents agreed to the bond issue to make the expansion happen.

“Even with the shortfall,” he said, “we have a lot to be grateful for.”