Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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With DePratter Gone, The 5 March Ahead With the Hunter-Hilton: $25mil budget goes into dreamland

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – On Thursday night, December 20, 2018, the Columbia County 5, with Rusty DePratter gone, enhanced its reputation as Florida's premiere good ole' boy rural North Florida county, when three hours into its meeting it delved into a long promised discussion of the cost of the Hunter-Hilton, Columbia County's proposed $32mil state of the art county jail.

The agenda called for discussion, but this year's County 5 Chairman Ronald Williams articulated it was really an item of action: he was looking for a vote. By the time the evening's business rolled around to the "jail," this Christmas Holiday Eve meeting had two members of the general public left in the audience. The Columbia County 5 calls this good planning.


In January 2017, the County's jail consultant, Clemons, Rutherford & Associates (Rutherford) came up with a $25.9mil proposal for a new county jail. Late in 2017, the Columbia County 5, then consisting of County commissioners (by district) Williams, DePratter, Nash, Phillips, and Murphy set the budget for a new County jail at $25mil. The 5 deep sixed Rutherford and hired a new architect design consultant. It turned out Rutherford's proposal was the last time The 5 came close to their $25mil goal.

Sheriff Mark Hunter is one of Columbia County's quintessential good ole' boys and a varsity letter politician. You can read more about Sheriff Hunter here.

County Chairman Tim Murphy's roots with the Sheriff go back to their days in diapers.

As 2018 progressed, Sheriff Hunter's dreams soared for a monumental county jail and it morphed into the $32mil no-holds-barred high tech no amenities spared Hunter-Hilton, a monument to both Sheriff Hunter and America's ability to industrialize the incarceration of human beings.

The Sheriff wanted to move the jail from its present rural location to the eastern entrance of Columbia County on U.S. Hwy 90 for all to see.

Over the preceding few years, the jail population was decreasing to an average daily population (ADP) of around 215, a well know fact that no one wanted to admit.

                      See: County Jail: Average Daily Population Exaggerated...

Sheriff Hunter, his boyhood chum Chairman Murphy, County Manager Ben Scott, and the County 5, hatched a scheme to increase the sales tax to finance the new jail. By August, District 2's DePratter had seen through the plan and abandoned it. So did the public and the County's voters resoundingly turned down the referendum to finance the new jail.

See: For the County 5 & Sheriff Hunter, It's Time to Regroup: No New Taxes – New Jail on Hold

While it looked like the jail was dead – this is Columbia County.

On September 20, Chairman Murphy announced that he, County Manager Scott, jail administrator Chris Douglas, the Sheriff, the architect and the construction manager were working behind closed doors (The Team)

Mr. Murphy said the following [as spoken], "We're in there crushin'. We're fixin' to get to crushin' to see where we can save some money. We'll bring you -- We'll continue to keep the public and this board updated."

Thursday was the first update. While Chairman Murphy had the opportunity to update the public on the Team's progress and said that he would, it was obvious the Infamous 5 waited till the Christmas Eve holiday to take its proposal public.

The Plans

December 20, three hours into the County 5 meeting, County Manager Ben Scott announced the agenda item: "The next item we have for discussion is the jail construction. You guys told us you had a $25mil budget and we needed to work within that $25mil budget. We worked with some various options."

Mr. Scott invited the architect's representative, Dewberry's Jim Beight, and the construction manager's representative, Ajax's Lon Neuman to the microphone where, after brief introductions, they got right down to business.

The joint Dewberry-Ajax presentation referred to the rejected $32.6mil initial jail proposal as the "Original SD," which apparently is an acronym for Sheriff's Dream.

This proposal called for a massive construction project requiring wetland mitigation at the site of the Sheriff's Office on U.S. 90, and a new administration building for the Sheriff.

The jail would be built with two pods.  Pods are where the prisoners go. A pod holds 256 prisoners. One pod would be fully built out; the other would be built to house 128 prisoners, giving the Sheriff's Dream an initial capacity of 384 prisoners, with the ability to jump into housing another 128, for a total of 512 prisoners at the County jail.

As previously mentioned, when the Observer ran the average daily population (ADP) in August, the ADP over the past three years was under 215 inmates.

Sheriff's Dream Jail: $32,577,869 without "Stuff like that."

The price for the Sheriff's Dream jail: $32,577,869. That is without change orders, cost overruns and as Commissioner Sylvester "Bucky" Nash would say, "Stuff like that."

When the architect, construction manager, and everyone else, including the voters, who in August, voted down the County 5's bizarre financing scheme, realized this was a pipe dream that even Columbia County's good ole' boys couldn't pull off, the Team reduced the cost and came up with Option 1. Total cost of Option 1: $31,345,176, representing a savings of $1,213,300 from the original plan.

Option 1

The difference between the original plan, which is referred to as the SD (Sheriff's Dream) Plan and Option 1, is the elimination of the half pod shell and moving the jail out of the wetlands. The jail would still hold 384 prisoners and have the infrastructure in place for 512.

Option 1 is $6.3 million over the $25mil budget.

Option 2

Option two, which was getting close to the approved budget of $25mil, cost $26,343,819 for 256 beds, two more than the facility that the Sheriff and 4 of The 5 want you to believe are absolutely necessary.

Option 2 also includes a core that could be built out to accommodate 512 prisoners.

Option 3

Option 3 utilized the current jail site and included a "partial reuse" of the present jail. The total cost for Option 3 is $27,319,695.

Desperate to keep the current County jail out of play, the architect, project manager, and Team claim the present jail violates the County ordinance restricting the distance sex offenders can reside near an elementary school.

Nobody mentioned how many sex offenders are detained in the County jail, but it is a jail, and even if the Hunter-Hilton were to be eventually built there, the inmates are not free to come and go: that is why it is called a jail.

Part II will be providing some of the discussion by the County 5 as it led up to the vote to continue down the road to the shiny new Hunter-Hilton.

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