Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Grand Distortions About Bed Counts & the Future Keep the $31mil Hunter-Hilton Marching On

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – As the December 20 County 5 Christmas Eve Holiday meeting drifted into its third hour, and with 99% of the public gone, Chairman Ronald Williams called Sheriff Hunter to the microphone to discuss proposed jail options and the jail's bed count or Average Daily Population (ADP).

Option 3: New Jail at Old Jail Site

By the end of the evening, the $31mil Option 1, (384 beds), was 'mind melded' into action.

Dewberry architect Jim Beight discussed Option 3.

Mr. Beight told The 5, "We've looked hard at what's another option. The next option gets the number down around 23 million... This is a reduced bed count of 256... Working closely with the Sheriff and Capt. Douglas [jail administrator] they affirm that they would be able to operate the facility if needed. Obviously, they would prefer the higher bed count... but they could live with this if they had to."

Chairman Williams invited Sheriff Hunter to the Microphone

Chairman Williams asked, "Sheriff, what is your average bed count today?"

Sheriff Hunter answered, "We are running around - over 300 - around 323."

Chairman Williams followed up, "About 200?"

Sheriff Hunter:  "Yeah. 300."

Chairman Williams:  -unintelligible-

Your reporter glanced over at the Sheriff. The Sheriff glanced back.

Sheriff Hunter:  "Excuse me. 235 is what we had talked about before and I would say that would be average. That's with in-house and then with the ones that we have out. A good average number would be around 220."

Chairman Williams: "Around 220?"

Sheriff Hunter:  "Yup."

Chairman Williams:  -unintelligible-

Chairman Williams' failure to use the microphone, along with most of the rest of The 5, who refuse to use their microphones or make themselves understood, is a violation of Florida's Sunshine Law.

Sheriff Hunter: "You need to understand the head - the bed - the count is not so much the problem - I mean as the way the design of the building is."

Chairman Williams:  "We're not gaining anything."

Sheriff Hunter:  "We're gaining two beds. That's it. And you're gonna' be back here probably in about - I would say - dependin' on how things go - it could be within five years we'll be back buildin' the other half pod."

The present County Jail: knowledgeable people, including former County Manager Dale Williams, believe the County Jail can be renovated.

What is a Pod at the proposed jail?

Pods can be designed in many sizes and security levels. The County and Sheriff Hunter have never justified building pods in 128 bed units. Sheriff Hunter and the County have never explained the security levels in the County Jail Project.

A pod in the Dewberry design is a unit that contains 256 beds. One-half a pod is 128 beds. The architect and the County speak in units of 128 beds. This is why one sees the jump from 256 to 384 beds, or to 512 beds.

The new jail is being designed with one pod (256 beds) with the core in place to add another 256 beds, which would give the proposed new county jail a built out capacity of 512 beds. Mr. Beight explained that the "chassis" will be there for future expansion.

Mr. Witt asked, "What is the average cost today to add that pod?"

Ajax's Neuman responded, "About four and a half million."

Unidentified board member: "A half pod?"

Unidentified consultant: "Yeah."

The Feds – The FL Legislature – Capacity – The Sheriff

In recent times, Sheriff Hunter has claimed that outside forces might mandate the County house other prisoners, generally, those from the state prison system.

Chairman Williams brought up the topic [as spoken], "There is a very strong possibility that the legislature will mandate that you have inmates two years that is sentenced to the prison for those two years -unintelligible-. Talk a bit about that."

Sheriff Hunter explained that for the past three years he has been a member of the Sheriff's Association legislative delegation.

He said, "The legislation has had discussion about extending the stay for inmates up to one year."

Sheriff Hunter said he is concerned about the politics in Washington and the Justice Reform Bill. That it is "going to trickle down to Florida. They already have an appetite for sentence, so called reduction, now that's for the state prisons. Now where you think they're gonna' go. Some of them are gonna' be housed back here and they're gonna' look at us housin' inmates up to two years. That would increase my bed population, right off the bat, by about a hundred a day."

Commissioner Williams said, "You answered my question."

Sheriff Hunter: Shouting 'fire' when there is no fire?

The recent federal prison reform act, known as the First Step Act, only affects federal prisoners. It was supported by both the left and the right. It was signed by President Trump. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 87% of US prison inmates are held in state facilities. Florida has the third highest incarceration rate in the country, twice that of NY, the next largest state in America.

The Feds will not be sending prisoners to the Columbia County jail. They will not be "trickling" in.

State Prison Reform: Sheriff Hunter got that wrong.

State prisoners will not be making a b-line to the Columbia County jail.

Sheriff Hunter left out all the facts and he did not tell the truth.

Sheriff Hunter was talking about SB 484 (2018). In order for the state to have sent any prisoners to the Columbia County jail, the proposed bill mandated, among other things, a contractual agreement between the Sheriff and the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC).

The Sheriff left out all the facts concerning the transfer requirements proposed by the state.

None of The 5 asked for further explanation.

If Senator Bradley's (2018-SB484) criminal reform act gets re-introduced and eventually passes in a form close to its last incarnation, it will not result in increasing the Columbia County jail population, "right off the bat, by about a hundred a day."

Sheriff Hunter did not tell the truth.

Read about an 88 bed max security pod
Read about a jail kitchen remodel
Read about how Fairfax County, VA., runs its county jail

Deciding on the Options

As the jail discussion was winding down, Commissioner Witt said, "The only option tonight is to make a motion to bid Option 1."

Chairman Williams followed up, "I'm not going to call for a vote until I understand what I'm votin' on and which way we headin'."

Your reporter pointed out, "All it says on the agenda is discussion. It doesn't say vote."

County Attorney Foreman Weighs In

County Attorney Foreman weighed in: "Gentleman, you're looking for direction to get into that design. And so I think what Mr. Nash is suggesting; what Mr. Witt seems to be supporting is go ahead and let these guys design Option 1... When it gets bid, it gets bid in the alternative. You'll have hard numbers where you can decide is it worth kickin' the secondary part of option 1 down the road, or should we just go ahead and just do Option 1 in total..."

Chairman Williams followed up, "You heard the discussion. That's all I want to know before I vote."

Sheriff Hunter Weighed In

Sheriff Hunter: "I can tell you all from listening to this, they need direction. I'm in... Let me do a Tim Murphy here."

Com. Murphy is well known for his Joycean stream of consciousness explanations.

Commissioner Nash:  "Oh shit."

Sheriff Hunter:  I'll stand with ya'... Option 1 is the best plan... Let them design the whole thing... we've designed the core for the total 512. Let's go that route. I can hold it for a while on just one pod. ... The only problem we're gonna' have is when we start gettin' the head count goin' way up... I don't know what the legislature is gonna' do. If they hit us with that two year deal -- we're either gonna' have to warehouse em', pay to warehouse em' somewhere else. And we're gonna' do that until we can get the head count up -- the bed count up -- to where we can house em'. We can make it work for a few years."

Chairman Williams said, "I know how I am going to vote. You're in - you're in. You ain't - you ain't. That's all I'm sayin'."

Com. Murphy, the County's Aspiring Politician
"I won't go into details"

Commissioner Murphy said, "There is money to be saved... I won't go into details..."

Com. Murphy has never justified a 512 bed jail for his "childhood buddy," Sheriff Mark Hunter.

Com. Murphy added, "Me and my childhood buddy. This thing has never been a population issue. It's always been a clarification issue. You need to plan for 512 for the future... My point is to everybody here and the public... I support the design for Option 1 where we head forward."

Your reporter addressed The 5, "If you look around, I think there's two members of the public here. I'm looking at this agenda it says 'jail construction: discussion.' It doesn't say voting on anything."

Chairman Williams said, "The attorney said we can."

Your reporter, who is also a taxpayer and property owner in the County, followed up, "It doesn't say vote on anything. Seems to me like you are giving the public, 70,000 residents and the tens of thousands of taxpayers, it's like you're playing Jingle Bells with banjos tonight, if anybody remembers Deliverance."

The 5 was expecting to vote and your reporter also had information that the County Manager was expecting a vote.

Mr. Foreman addressed Ajax, "What do you need from this board tonight to proceed into your design phase. Have you heard enough to go forward, or do you need a –unintelligible?"

Dewberry responded: "Dewberry has a contract we've negotiated to design the project through construction documents. That's been authorized and that was voted on quite some time ago. We need authorization to keep moving. We are just stuck dead in the water right now. If we can get that to move into design-development so Lon [Ajax Construction Management] has something that he can put concrete numbers to, then you're in a position to vote on what's actually going to get built. We're trying to develop enough information to where real costs can be brought before you."

With The 5 getting ready to vote in what would have been in violation of the Florida statutes (SB 50), County Attorney Foreman came to their rescue.

Attorney Foreman to the Rescue: No need to vote
Mind Meld Bails Out the County Manager and The 5

Mr. Foreman addressed Dewberry and Ajax, again: "What I've heard this evening is a concurrence of the board asking for you to design option one and then I think Mr. Scott said he was going to talk to you about the fee. I don't know commissioners, other than offering your input what Mr. Scott has requested. I think you've done your job this evening. I don't think there is a vote necessary."

There were nods of approval.


So far, Dewberry, architectural and engineering services, and Ajax, construction management, have been paid $551k, enough to have renovated the kitchen at the County jail.

Newly elected commissioner, Rocky Ford, during the campaign said an independent study should have been performed at the jail to determine a true cost of renovation, not a study performed by firms who stood to make millions in fees. On Friday he told the Observer, "I still believe that."

The Hunter-Hilton marches on as 4 of The 5 work to deliver an unjustified monument of incarceration and "human warehousing" to its hometown boy, Sheriff Mark Hunter.

All photos are file photos.

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