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Sheriff Hunter's New Jail (Hunter-Hilton):  $10 Mil Over Budget Before Leaving the Drawing Board

Proposed Columbia County, Florida County Jail: the Hunter-Hilton

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – This past Thursday night, the homeless Columbia County 5 put off a vote on spending, when all is said and done, around $35,000,000,  plus finance charges, on a new County Jail to house between 200 and 250 inmates, only 85 of which are high risk males.


For about a decade and a half, off-and-on, the Columbia County 5 ("County Commission" or "The 5") have been having meetings and talking about building a new County Jail.

In the early 2000's, The 5 diverted millions of excess revenues into a "Jail Fund." It spent the money on something else.

Renovations of the County Jail were never seriously discussed. The pattern was always to have an architect give a price for a new jail, at a far greater capacity than was needed, and then conclude the "old" jail could not be economically renovated.

The hysteria about building a new jail reached a fevered pitch in 2018, with the County's main stream print media (the home grown version of Pravda) publisher, Todd Wilson, opining that a "New jail could lead to great jobs."

Todd Wilson: publisher Lake City Reporter"New jail could lead to great jobs"?
A look at the facts.

A national study found that correction officers (COs) suicide risk was 39% higher than all other professions combined. Additionally, depending on the correctional institution, the turnover rate approaches 50%; divorce rates among COs are 20% higher than the national average; heart disease is 50% higher than any other occupation; and PTSD among COs is about four times the national average. In Columbia County COs start at about $33,000.

Sometime in 2018, three of The 5 agreed on a budget for a new County Jail not to exceed $25,000,000. Those three commissioners were Mr. DePratter, Mr. Williams, and Mr. Phillips.

The County Record: What's That?

A search of the County minutes for all of 2018 doesn't have one word about any agreement on a $25 mil jail. Neither do the minutes give the proposed initial cost of the jail or any projected costs.

The County's 2019 minutes show a similar dearth of information.

On Saturday, November 23, 2019, your reporter spoke with former Commissioner Rusty DePratter and asked him if he remembered when The 5 decided to stand pat with the $25 mil amount. He could not remember exactly, but said that he thought it was sometime around the budget hearings (2018).

September 2018 Tells the Story

It may have been a little before. However, the September 6, 2018 budget hearing clearly restated the $25 mil amount.

Commissioner Ronald WilliamsCommissioner Ron Williams addressed Commissioner Murphy, who was then the Chairman, "We asked you to be a representative of this jail for this board. When we talked about this jail we talked about 25 million dollars. That's it. Twenty-five million dollars. We're goin' to build a jail for twenty-five million dollars."

An unidentified [chronic problems with the audio system] commissioner added, "That's all we voted for."

Commissioner Murphy responded, "I was asked by this board. Appointed by this board to work on this committee [county manager, sheriff, and jail administrator] to bring back a price for this jail. As a group we've been working very hard. Are we to a point where I can sit here and confidently tell each and every person in here that we can build the jail for twenty-five million? Absolutely not. Can I tell you that it's gonna' be built in the next year? Absolutely not."

Commissioner Williams responded, "That's what I needed to know. For me to support a jail it's gonna' cost twenty-five million dollars."

A few moments later, County Manager Ben Scott added, "I can't tell you today 'yes' we can build a jail for twenty-five million dollars and I can't tell you when we're gonna' start it."

Commissioner Rusty DePratterCommissioner DePratter cautioned The 5, "There's five businessmen on this board and we need to act like businessmen... I see the fact that we have to live within our means and I think that's what we should do."

Commissioner Phillips agreed.

Taking a step back to the preceding meeting of August 23, 2018, when The 5 spoke about financing options for the jail.

Commissioner Williams told The 5, "Mr. Chairman, I got all the confidence in the world of you and the team you put together to make sure you bring back the best price that you can."

After some discussion, Chairman Murphy responded [as spoken], "Hypothetically, if you're sittin' there; you're lookin' at a guarantee 700 -unintelligible- impact -- big numbers. I'm gonna' do a 30 million dollar jail and crunch my points -- guess what -- the jail gets put on the back shelf. I mean - it's just that simple."

It would appear that Mr. Murphy was saying that if the new jail came in at 30 million, it was a non-starter.

A little while later, Commissioner Nash had the jail costing an estimated $29 million.

Commissioner DePratter reminded The 5, "It's already at $31,562,540."

Graph of Columbia County Jail average daily population: Vera
Graph: Vera | Incarceration Trends through 2015 dataset assembled using information provided to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) by state and local corrections authorities, and from the websites of state correctional authorities. County ADP (Average Daily Population) took a boost as the jail replacement price was in the final stages in 2019, reversing a 5 year downward trend; satistics will be presented in a following article.

2019: Commissioner Tim Murphy's Due Diligence

This past Thursday night, November 21, 2019, somewhere around 16 months after Commissioner Tim Murphy began 'crunching his points', he brought the jail in at $31,439,158, a mere $123,382 less than the August 2018 price.

Mr. Murphy's and the Sheriff's $31 mil plus jail have not moved much from the original estimates.

Today's [Sunday] mainstream media has County Manager Ben Scott purportedly saying that the run-up from $25 mil to $31.5 mil is a result of escalation of $200,000 a month and a jail price that went back six years.

In January 2017, 3 years ago, Clemson, Rutherford & Associates presented a plan to build a new 256 bed housing pod and a 128 half housing pod and additional structures at the present jail site for, depending on the plan, for approximately $26 mil.

The most recent cost of the jail does not include architect and engineering fees and other items which will bring up the price to $35 mil plus.

Presently, the total finance charges are unknown. 


During the 2018 campaign, then candidate and present Commissioner Rocky Ford told the Observer [reported January 12, 2019] that 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.

Many others believed that. Nobody listened.

Commissioners and Todd Wilson are file photos. Graphic of Proposed County Jail, CCSO

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