Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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As Sheriff Hunter's $25 Mil Jail Moves out of the Shadows, There Are Many Unanswered Questions

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Thursday night's January 4 meeting of the infamous Columbia County 5 had as its primary topic the approval of the Jail Architect Agreement between Dewberry Architects, Inc. and the County 5. Commissioner DePratter's questions stopped the approval in its tracks.

According to County documents, the initial phase of the agreement is to provide cost estimates for two options: 1) a new 384 bed county jail; 2) a new 384 county jail with a new Sheriff's headquarters. No one has explained what is wrong with the present Sheriff's headquarters, which has been kept pristine by Sheriff Hunter.

Nobody is talking about the current jail, which despite much moaning by some county officials that it is about to fall down and is obsolete, has been in operation since 1987 and in the beginning had been the target of investigations regarding waste, fraud, abuse, and graft. Being Columbia County, the well known epicenter of good ole' boy cronyism, nothing stuck.

The facility is described as having 250 beds.

Statics: the Old Jail and County Population

Between January 2013 and February 2014 the average daily population of the jail was 187.8 inmates.

According to statistics from UF, the county population change from 2010 to 2016 was 1.5%. In 2010 there were 67,531 residents.

The Columbia County Jail

A construction expert with intimate knowledge of the county jail told the Observer, "I estimate that for between 5 and 8 million the jail could be upgraded."

If any studies have been performed regarding the upgrading of the present facility, the Sheriff and The 5 are not talking.

Another county official asked the Observer, "You can do a lot of renovations for $5 mil. Why isn't anybody talking about that?"

The County Manager Begins

County Manager Ben Scott explained that the County was already a month behind schedule.

The new jail is budgeted for $25 mil. The architectural costs are already 10% over estimates and the cost of a construction manager for the project, usually 10-15% of the construction costs, has not been figured in.

"What's the Plan?"

Commissioner DePratter wasted no time in alerting The 5 that he was not going to be a rubber stamp. Mr. DePratter asked, "What's the plan? We need to have a plan. What is our plan if it comes in at $32 mil? We haven't discussed the plan. Maybe we need to have a plan?"

Mr. DePratter did some more math, estimated the construction management would cost $2 mil and told The 5, "We're gonna' be short $11 mil. We need to have a plan before I sign this contract (contract for architectural services) or vote for it... We don't need to start this and get on the hook for $2.3 mil and not have answers."

County manager Scott told the board, "We haven't started negotiations with the construction manager."

Mr. DePratter continued, "For some reason this is like 90 thousand miles an hour pushing forward, but, for $25 mil, another two weeks is not going to hurt me. Let's do it right."

Chairman Murphy agreed and said he understood where Mr. DePratter was "coming from" and encouraged questions from the board and slowing things down.

Mr. Murphy added, "This is the only place that we can publicly discuss this. This is a perfect time to bring out our concerns."

County Manager Scott spoke about the budget for the jail. It was clear that the financing is not ready for prime time.

Commissioner Nash said he thought it was "pretty reasonable" to spend "a hundred [$100,000] - a hundred and a half" before spending $25 mil on the jail.

Sheriff Hunter:
Pet Crime Scene Dream Building & boo-hoo moment

A discussion about the Sheriff's crime scene building had him coming out of the darkness to the microphone.

The crime scene building is scheduled to add $2,000,000 to the jail budget.

       FDLE's Crime Lab broshure

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is Florida's experts in crime scene and forensic science. Two of their offices are close by in Tallahassee and Jacksonville. It is not clear why Sheriff Hunter needs his own multimillion dollar crime scene unit, who is going to fund the experts to staff it, and where the experts are going to come from.

Sheriff Hunter had another boo-hoo moment: "I've watched the commission over the years and I know we've been beat up by the public. You all have been beat up by the public because of all the so-called secret meetings. The hard thing about this is you guys cannot meet outside of this room, together, two of you all collectively cannot be discussin' things."

Sheriff Hunter went on about how things happen in committee meetings and not everyone can know about them. It was not clear if the Sheriff heard about keeping good minutes, which is a way many agencies communicate.

While the Sheriff, along with Columbia County and its other Constitutional Officers are collectively shining stars in public record access, the Sheriff has over time shown an aversion to operating in the sunlight. There was nothing which prohibited the Sheriff along with the County from establishing a citizen's oversight committee to monitor and report on the jail project, which if it continues down the road to completion, may well cost Columbia County $50,000,000.

It was clear that the Sheriff was getting antsy with all of Mr. DePratter's questions.

Finally, No Rubber Stamps
Nash Speaks Up, Murphy Follows Up

After listening to the Board for almost 30 minutes Commissioner Nash said, "I don't want to be rubber stampin' somethin'."

County Manager Scott went over the planning process and it was evident that nobody reports back to the board and the public.

Chairman Murphy told The 5, "I don't want any commissioner to vote for anything they don't feel confident [with]. If a commissioner's got a question -- we need to get it out -- we need to ask it."

County Attorney Foreman

It appeared that County Attorney Foreman never looked at the contract before it came before The 5 on Thursday night. Via text he advised that he did go over it for form, however he wasn't on the [jail] committee, nor was he "asked to assist."

The Florida law establishing Florida's only elected county attorney is clear and unambiguous and says in relevant part, "He shall prepare all deeds, contracts, agreements... as shall be necessary from time to time to transact the business of Columbia County."

Commissioner Williams: Not Concerned With Price

As the conversation was winding down, Commissioner Williams said, "I don't know where the $25 mil number came from... if it cost $20 mil or $30 mil let's catch the bull by the horns and say, 'This is what we're gonna' invest in the future of corrections in Columbia County.'"

The jail contract will be coming back before the County 5, probably at the next regularly scheduled meeting.

Stay tuned.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On January 6, 2018, LJ Two Spirits Johnson of Columbia County wrote:

What are the famous 5 doing to the citizens of Columbia County? The 5 haven't taken the time to consider the impact of their actions (again) about how this hurt's the people. An upgrade would be less harmful to the citizens; especially the Elderly, Disabled, poor, and all of the citizens of our county.

If they proceed with the $50 million project, the gas taxes would go up reducing traffic for those that have a need to go places other than healthcare appointments. It will also affect the store owners because people will not be able to afford shopping as much.

Just because the 5 have money in the bank and in their pockets doesn't mean they should be so unconcerned with how this would impact on the people of our county or even the tourist that come here.

The people need to rise up and say 'Hell No', we will not tolerate anymore unnecessary taxes and waste of our taxpayer money !!!

WAKE UP people. At least Rusty said he will not sign without more knowledge of jumping forward with both eyes closed.

As for County Attorney Foreman, don't vote him back in if he can't do his job. Paying Foreman is like throwing money on a fire...wasteful and stupid !!!

Columbia County Resident, Two Spirits


On January 6, 2018, Sandra-Buck-Camp of Lake City wrote:

I attended this meeting. It appeared that they knew very little and did not have a good grasp of the situation or the amount of money they were committing to. Considering the amount of money this may eventually cost the citizens of the county, I found this very disappointing.



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