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.


 CLAY BENNETT  |  Chattanooga Times Free Press
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