Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County's Sheriff Wants a New $26,000,000 Jail: This Time He May Get It

Adding financing, the cost over 30 years is about $36,000,000. For the past 2 1/2 years, the deputies, the folks on the first line, have not received a raise.

COLUMBIA COUNTY – As reported earlier, the Public Safety Coordinating Council (PSCC) (Sheriff, Public Defender, County Court, State Attorney, Jail Warden, and County Commissioner met on January 17, 2017. No one knew from any of the public announcements what was going to go on at the meeting. The County's non-descript agenda violates both the spirit and intent of Florida's Sunshine law, common sense, and the Florida Statutes.

The meeting agenda prepared by County Manager Ben Scott: findings are not action. A misleading agenda designed so no one knew what was going on.

Commissioner Nash, the meeting chairman, kicked off the meeting, "We're here to hear a presentation from Clemons, Rutherford and Associates: the study of the jail."

The last meeting of the PSCC was held on June 12, 2014. The Observer has been unable to locate any minutes for that meeting.  You can read about the meeting here: Columbia County Jail – $35,000,000: Replace or Renovate, The Conversation Begins and here in Pt II.

It was obvious that the County management and the Sheriff had been working in the back corridors on a jail plan.

Bill Rutherford of Clemons, Rutherford and Associates (CRA) began, "We have been working on this for a long time, as you know."

It is not clear how anybody knew, as no reports were provided by Mr. Rutherford or the County. The last report that CRA produced for the County was in January of 2003.

Mr. Rutherford continued, "We have gone over all of the groundwork previously on determining bed counts and bed numbers and what your needs are."

Neither Mr. Rutherford nor the County provided any of those reports. No one asked and it is not clear if they exist.

Mr. Rutherford said he was going to show the committee some jail sites and then claimed, "I didn't provide handouts because I want to get it right if you want to make a change before I put it in written document form. So we'll give a thumb drive to Ben and if you want to see it or look at it that way, that's then up to him."

As has been the case with the County 5 for over a decade,  PowerPoints are relatively useless. CRA's PowerPoint was no exception. The lack of any handouts exacerbated the situation.

The County and CRA have dueling stories regarding the lack of handouts for the meeting. As usual, the Sheriff, who was clearly working with CRA and the County, volunteered as little as possible.

Mr. Rutherford volunteered, "We are looking and have justified a bed count of around 330 -- 350 -- 360, somewhere in that neighborhood, which is consistent with the Sheriff's thoughts and desires."

Mr. Rutherford reviewed both the present jail site (old jail) and the Sheriff's Office as jail sites.

He said the old jail cells are in bad shape and there is difficulty monitoring inmates due to the location of the control rooms. He said he could provide a new jail with 384 beds.

Your reporter asked, "How did you come up with 384 beds?"

Mr. Rutherford answered, "Based on his [the Sheriff's] needs and what he has today."

Your reporter followed up, "So he told you he needed 384 beds?"

Mr. Rutherford answered, "He didn't say 384 exactly. He said look at it and try to get as close as you can to the number. He needs about 330 -- 335 today. So about as close as we could get is a half pod."

Your reporter: "He needs 335 today?"

Mr. Rutherford:  "Yup."

An associate of Mr. Rutherford entered the conversation. He did not identify himself (the Other Guy). He added, "Let me explain the way we come up with those numbers. We come up with those numbers based on the average daily population of the jail. Plus the court numbers of people who would be in jail, but are being released because there is not sufficient space. To keep their accreditation you can only have so many inmates. The court and the Sheriff's office determine how they're going to deal with those people. We looked at the average daily population numbers and the projection for this area and we came up with the numbers based on the projection of average daily population. You don't want to build a jail if you're going to outgrow it next year. We are looking at something that you could carry out for 25 years."

Sheriff Hunter added, "We're averagin' 235 a day is what we house. The jail is built for 254."

Sheriff Hunter continued, "The wild card that is out there right now is for the last two years the Legislature has been entertaining -- sentencing state prisoners to the County Jail... which is going to have a significant impact on us."

The legislation does not mandate counties build added capacity to house state prisoners.

CRA/Sheriff Hunter site plans were unreadable.

Your reporter followed up, "Not if you can't put them in there. My question is, 'How many people aren't going to jail now that you think should be going to jail, Tom?'" [PSCC member Judge Tom Coleman]

Judge Coleman didn't volunteer any prospective inmate numbers.

The Other Guy volunteered, "That's based on different counties. It depends on each agency and what their process is. For us, we look at an average number based on the current population with additional beds."

Your reporter followed up, "So you don't know in Columbia County, other than the 234 or 35 that should be in jail, that are in jail?"

None of the PSCC was coming up with answers.

Mr. Rutherford added, "I can assure you what my guess would be. He has several warrants he could serve, but he doesn't have any place to put em'?"

Throwing people in jail: "It's a processing thing"

The Other Guy added, "What we find is that there's a percentage for a jail like yours that you need to add on right now to be able to house the people in your community that are perhaps being released that you don't have space for. Not that they're dangerous or anything -- it's just a processing thing."

After a couple of brief remarks by County Manager Ben Scott, Mr. Rutherford added, "In the southeastern United States we find that in a community that has a resort, a beach area, heavy inter-state [highway] that it is common for us to have six out of every thousand of population incarcerated."

How Much Would it Cost to Run a New, Expanded Jail?

CRA said they didn't look at the added cost to run the proposed new and expanded jail.

Each different CRA proposal cost $26,000,000, which caused Commissioner Nash to remark, "Everything is 26 million."

Why Are We Here?

This site plan was agreed upon by the PSCC. This is what could be seen on the projection screen.

Public Defender Blair Payne said, "I have a question. I want to make sure I understand what we're doing here tonight. Basically, you're showing us a footprint."

The Other Guy:  "That's right."

Mr. Payne asked, "Why?"

The Other Guy, "The guts will be filled in much later after much more discussion."

The County Manager to the Rescue

The conversation was going nowhere. County Manager Scott jumped in, "Chairman (Nash), what I'm looking for from this committee from an administrative standpoint is this committee is tasked to make recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners, as far the detention facility goes... I am looking for a recommendation that I could take back to the Board [County 5]."

The operating expenses for a new jail are unknown. In Columbia County, they decide to build first, and figure out the construction costs and operational costs second.

County Manager Scott said that if the PSCC's recommendation was to build a new jail he would have to figure out how to fund the estimated $26 mil.

Columbia County's Sheriff Was Not Prepared

Mr. Scott told the Sheriff, "I will have to know those operating costs. I could come up with the debt service based on the $26 million number. But beyond the debt service, I have to know -- here is what it's costing us to operate now -- here is what is going to cost us to operate in the future. I have to know that."

Sheriff Hunter did not explain why he wasn't prepared with the operating costs of the jail. The jail administrator [warden], Joe Lucas, was in attendance. The Sheriff didn't ask him.

Both the State Attorney and the Public Defender said access to prisoners needed improvement.

The Sheriff Was Ahead of Everyone - Maybe

Sheriff Hunter said he had moved ahead with the Corps of Engineers to get approval for a site plan at his office.

Dancing in the Dark: The approval

The PSCC: Chairman Nash did not ask the participants to identify themselves. In his 5th year as a county commissioner, parliamentary procedure still eludes him.

Commissioner Nash: "So are we lookin' to recommend to the Board of County Commissioners buildin' a new jail?"

Public Defender, Blair Payne said, "If you want a motion for that, I'll make it."

Mr. Nash:  "I have a motion."

State Attorney Siegmeister:  "I'll second."

Mr. Nash asks: "Any further discussion?"

There was silence.

Mr. Nash:  "All those in favor say 'Aye.'"

Some of the Committee members spoke, some didn't.

Mr. Nash: "The motion carries."

Your reporter in a conversational tone, asked: "Aren't you supposed to ask if anybody's opposed?"

Mr. Nash: -unintelligible- "Relax. Everybody here said yes."

Your reporter followed up: "I didn't see everybody talk."

Mr. Nash mumbled something unintelligible.

Columbia County residents may soon be ponying up around $36,000,000 for a new County Jail of questionable necessity.

Part I: Foot Dragging, Back Room Deals, No Timely & Relevant Info – It's Columbia County

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