1. Opinion

Settlement in Hernando jail case is good for savings but bad for accountability

Published Jan. 28, 2012

The settlement of a federal lawsuit between a private jail operator and Hernando County brings economic certainty to a fiscally strained county government. Unfortunately, it also robs taxpayers of a public accounting of exactly how the jail fell into such disrepair that it required plans for a million-dollar makeover when the Sheriff's Office assumed control in 2010.

In an agreement reached in mediation, which still requires County Commission approval, Hernando will receive $100,000, while Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) will receive the remainder of $1.86 million, the contractually obligated payments withheld by the commission over the disputed jail conditions. The county originally sought nearly $900,000 to cover repairs it considered CCA's responsibility, a figure that probably shrank with falling construction prices and a separate decision from the county to build a stand-alone medical facility instead of investing in the existing wing.

CCA operated the county jail for 22 years but departed in August 2010 after giving the county four months' notice amid talks of a takeover by the Sheriff's Office. The company later sued, contending that the county withheld its final payment installments improperly and that the highly publicized disrepair — unveiled when then-Sheriff Rich Nugent initially talked of assuming operations — was largely cosmetic and attributable to the county's inattentiveness.

On that last point, it is hard to dispute Hernando's role as absentee landlord — even with a county contract monitor on site — that contributed to the decay of a public asset. Nugent highlighted rusting doors and hinges, cracked walls, leaking ceilings, inadequate drainage, areas where electrical outlets and leaking water were side by side, and evidence that standing water rose above the valves on external fuel storage tanks. Clearly, there was a disregard for fixing problems as they arose and apparently little motivation for a for-profit company to notify the county about needed repairs.

But a contract that didn't allow either side to recoup its attorney fees and legal costs meant that a cash-strapped county with an understaffed legal office — still confronting pending litigation over the Hernando Beach channel dredge — was vying against a deep-pocketed corporation in a lawsuit that could drag on for years. That helped provide motivation for a settlement, regardless of the merits of the county's position.

Even without a detailed public accounting, it must be noted that most of the players from 2010 — the county administrator, the purchasing director, the contract monitor, the outside procurement agent, the sheriff and CCA — are no longer in paid county government positions. In that sense, the four commissioners remaining in office from the time the dispute became public may receive a measure of closure by authorizing the settlement.

Take away that political filter, however, and the settlement still makes sense. Absorbing the expense of readying this case for trial became imprudent. More important, the takeover of the jail by the Hernando Sheriff's Office, first by Nugent and then by his successor, Sheriff Al Nienhuis, translated into a $2 million annual savings to the county budget.

The county regrettably had to dip into its reserves for one-time fixes, but ending privatization of the jail will produce long-term dividends for the citizens of Hernando County.


  1. Ayana Lage, 26, and Vagner Lage, 27, pose with a sonogram of their unborn child. Ayana writes openly about going through a miscarriage due to the baby having a rare genetic defect. She wonders why more women don't discuss their miscarriages. JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |  Times
    Sunday’s letters to the editor
  2. Kreshae Humphrey, 26, applies ointments to the skin of her 3-year-old daughter, Nevaeh Soto De Jesus, after bathing her in bottled water. The parents bathe all three of their girls with bottled water because they believe the children were sickened by the tap water at the Southern Comfort mobile home park off U.S. 19 in Clearwater. The family is suing the park's owner over the issue, but the owner and the state say there are no problems with the drinking water there. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    The story of a Clearwater mobile home park and its water issues reflects a systemic breakdown.
  3. A long stretch of US 98 remains closed for repairs in Mexico Beach on Friday, September 27, 2019, almost one year after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the small coastal town. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Time is running out, so let’s get practical, says Craig Fugate
  4. Earlier today• Opinion
    FROM PRINT: Adam Goodman, national Republican media consultant
    Sure, fix capitalism’s flaws, but a wealth tax is not the way. | Adam Goodman
 CLAY BENNETT  |  Chattanooga Times Free Press
  6. A view of the downtown St. Petersburg skyline and waterfront from over Tampa Bay.
    The news that the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation wants to change its name to include “Tampa Bay” has been met with resistance.
  7. Catherine Rampell, Washington Post columnist.
    Allegations of political cowardice can seem rich coming from candidates unwilling to acknowledge the obvious truths about things such as higher taxes. | Catherine Rampell
  8. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, former Vice President Joe Biden, center, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raise their hands to speak during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) JOHN MINCHILLO  |  AP
    Here’s some interesting commentary from the opposite poles of the political spectrum.
  9. Yesterday• Opinion
    Letters to the Editor Graphic TARA MCCARTY  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Saturday’s letters to the editor
  10. Boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart are surrounded by blue green algae in June 2016. [The Palm Beach Post]
    The Legislature should step up and stop pollution at its source, write Howard Simon and John Cassani.