Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online news service

County News

Part II: The Hunter-Hilton (proposed County Jail) $40,000,000 for 200 detainees was just too much

Sheriff Hunter came ready for combat 

Links to Columbia County Jail articlesCOLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – The word on the street was widespread before Wednesday's jail meeting got underway: Sheriff Hunter's dream jail was topping the charts at $40 mil and was DOA. Even his life-long boy hood friend, Commissioner Tim Murphy, couldn't help him this time. A $40 mil jail for 85 high risk-high security detainees and 120 minimum security detainees was just too expensive for a community of 70,000.

A look at the spread sheet in Part I shows the average daily population (ADP) of the County Jail had been declining over the past 5 years. It is not clear why the ADP bumped up 20% this year, and it may just be a coincidence that this happened at the same time a decision was going to be made on building the new jail.

Commissioner Ronald Williams
Chairman Williams makes a point.

Commissioner Williams began this part of the meeting with a rundown of the projects he could remember over the past 40 years, then he mentioned a contingency fund, which the Sheriff said should be his.

Commissioner Williams said, "I also remember that you told this Board that 'I'll stand with you through hell and high water and support you on an infrastructure tax,' and when the water got high, you got in the boat and left us. I remember that. I want you to know that."

graphic that links to sound fileSheriff Hunter got up from his seat, "Let me respond to that," he said.

Commissioner Williams gaveled the Sheriff down, "You'll get a chance to respond."

The Consequences of Spending $40 mil On a New Jail

Commissioner Williams gave his take of the financial consequences of building a new jail. He said, "The advalorem taxpayers is the one that got to pay for it...  If we take the reserves, we don't have any money for paving roads... raises [for county employees] is gone. Any improvements in this County is gone, because we don't have the money to do it with."

Sheriff Mark Hunter
Sheriff Hunter listens to Commissioner Williams.

He continued, discussing the need to maintain reserve funds to fund economic development. "If we have all our money tied up in a forty million dollar jail, what are we gonna' do to grow employment in this County? What are we gonna' do about raises in this County? What are we gonna' do about insurance for our employee? Let's look at the big picture."

"We have to position our self now to be able to grow Columbia County. To give our kids, when they finish high school the ability to get a job and make a decent living. And we're gonna' tie it up in $40 mil worth of jail?"

He concluded, "This commissioner is not gonna' do that."

Sheriff Hunter: "The rug got pulled out from me."

Sheriff Mark Hunter disagreeing
Sheriff Hunter disagrees.

Sheriff Hunter gave his take on the failed 1 cent sales tax and told Commissioner Williams, "You think I left you at the altar, but I think it is the other way around...the rug got pulled out from me at the last minute and I went on record and said I could not support it unless there was a sunset on that."

The Observer has not been able to find any record where Sheriff Hunter mentioned anything about the "sunset."

Sheriff Hunter continued to bicker with Chairman Williams. While most other citizens would have been told to take their seats, Chairman Williams allowed the Sheriff to vent.

Commissioner Witt told the Sheriff, "I got calls from a Deputy asking about how come we didn't give him a raise, and I had to explain to him the process about 'We don't control raises."

The Sheriff controls raises at the Sheriff's Office.

Commissioner Toby Witt
Commissioner Toby Witt.

Mr. Witt said he had been watching the jail issues for the past twenty years and didn't believe the can should be kicked down the road. He said he would never approve an infrastructure tax. "You will never hear me bring up new taxes. I campaigned to live within our means. We can pay for this jail within our means. It might take some sacrifice on our part; on the Sheriff's part, but we can get there and that's what I think we should do."

Sherriff Hunter began to respond. Chairman Williams asked him to wait until the other commissioners responded.

The Sheriff balked. Chairman Williams allowed the Sheriff to respond to the commissioners as they spoke, causing the meeting to go on for another 2 hours.

Sheriff Hunter Has A Problem: Commissioners Change

Commissioner Ronald Williams listening.
Commissioner Williams listens.

Sheriff Hunter told The 5, "I keep gettin' different commissioners up here and the board shifts. The rug gets pulled out from under me."

The Sheriff then explained to The 5 about what a good job he was doing and mentioned the "step pay plan." "I don't know which employee called you, but he may not have been up for his step this year. They get them every two years."

The Sheriff complained that The 5 took away the percent based budget scheme worked out by former County Manager Dale Williams and The 5 at the time.

Sheriff Mark Hunter staring
Sheriff Hunter blamed everyone for the failure to build a new jail.

Percent based budgeting was a scheme which gave the Sheriff a percent of the revenues of the County. Columbia County was the only county in Florida to institute such a scheme and at the time it was hailed as a wonder scheme which would be enacted by other counties.

In the end, it turned out to be irresponsible to the taxpayers; no other county commission instituted it; and most sheriffs did not try. After a few years, The 5 realized their folly and did away with percent-based budgeting.

Sheriff Hunter told The 5, "I can't cut public safety... I've got to have the assets to go out there and do it."

Commissioner Sylvester "Bucky" Nash: "The Price is Crazy"

Commissioner Nash.

Commissioner Nash said, "For me, it's all about how do you pay for it."

Mr. Nash explained that financing the 30 plus million dollar jail would put the County in debt, a lot of debt. "As a commissioner, sittin' here, you'd have the County $50 mil in debt, that you're gonna' pass on to your kids and you grand children."

"I'm of a different opinion than Mr. Witt. That you go out there and you put a pod and you redo the old jail." (A pod is a housing unit. It can serve 1 or a few hundred).

"You should have started ten years ago renovatin' the old jail. You never did."

"Everybody's sayin' you'd like to have a new jail. At the end the price is crazy... 90 percent of the people that pay advalorem taxes don't use the jail.  100% of the people that pay advalorem taxes use infrastructure. That's a fact."

Sheriff Hunter responded as he did before, complaining about having "the rug pulled out" and changing boards. He said, "It hurts."

The Sheriff explained that the 5 tasked Commissioner Murphy, Jail Superintendent Douglas, County Manager Scott, and himself to bring back a plan. He did not explain that the plan was to come in at $25 million. It didn't.

Commissioner Rocky Ford: Building the Jail Equals "Bad Times"

Commissioner Rocky Ford listens to Sheriff Hunter.

Commissioner Ford said, "I think if we build this jail, we are going to be in bad times."

The Sheriff said he needed a new evidence room and said Commissioner Ford looked at it.

Commissioner Ford said, "We need to tackle one project at a time. When you start talkin' about a 25-30 million dollar contract...."

A testy Sheriff Hunter cut off Commissioner Ford, "That's the problem that we've had all along. This money was put back and now we're robbing the piggy bank for that project. There is no commitment and follow through."

He said again, "The rug gets pulled out from under us."

Commissioner Ford said, "We funded everything you asked for this year."

The Sheriff had no comment.

Commissioner Williams said, "We fund every other constitutional officer's budget in this County, adding, "We gave you what you asked for. Am I right or am I wrong?"

Sheriff Hunter answered, "Yes sir, you did."

Commissioner Ford said he hadn't heard how the County is going to pay for the jail. "I'm tryin' to figure out how we're going to pay for it."

Commissioner Murphy
There were bad feelings between the life-long friends

Commissioner Murphy listens to Sheriff Hunter.

Commissioner Murphy, who was The 5's representative on the committee to design a jail, said he and the committee accomplished that task.

Over the last year Commissioner Murphy did report back to The 5 from time to time that the committee was making progress and paring down the numbers. In the end, the $25 mil threshold was not met and with debt service, fees and other things the final cost of the jail came in at about $40 mil to the taxpayers.

Commissioner Murphy mentioned that the Sheriff had said he couldn't support a board option to rebuild the jail.

He then asked the Sheriff, "When you said you're not going to support (the third option to rebuild) what are you tellin' us you're gonna' do?"

Sheriff Hunter listens.

Sheriff Hunter responded, "Commissioners, I think it's wrong and a disservice to this county to rebuild that jail out there.  And I'm gonna' leave it at that, that I will do the best I can to support you all's decision... but I know, by lookin' at this Board tonight, you all had this together before you got here and I got a good idea about what's fixin' to happen... I support you the best I can with whatever decision you make."

Commissioner Murphy: "That's not what you said two weeks ago."

Sheriff Hunter: "I told you I would support you guys."

Commissioner Murphy: "That's right, but tonight you're sayin' 'The best that you can.'"

Commissioner Sylvester "Bucky" Nash listening
Commissioner Nash listens.

Sheriff Hunter: "Well, just let me say this, Commissioner Murphy... You're fixin' to vote an unknown, potentially. You don't know what it's goin' to cost to rebuild that out there (the jail). We're kickin' this can again, because we haven't got any plans to renovate that buildin'... I can't see goin back out and renovatin' that buildin'. I can't see it."

Commissioner Murphy: "That's hog wash that this is prearranged."

For about 45 minutes Commissioner Murphy and Sheriff Hunter went back and forth.

Finally: Commissioner Nash Hit a Nerve

After more bickering between the Sheriff and whoever spoke, Commissioner Nash spoke up, "The reason that we are in the position that we're in today, is we don't set goals, just like we do in our private lives."

After another 15 minutes of chatter, the County 5 voted down building a new County Jail. The vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Witt voting to build the jail.

Commissioner Witt said that in time, the County will spend the same amount.


For over a year, Sheriff Mark Hunter had opportunities to present data supporting the impossibility of renovation and data supporting building a new high capacity jail with declining jail population rates. He didn't.

Instead, Sheriff Hunter relied on familiar good ole' boy cronyism and the strength of his  personality. Both failed.

For the first time since the end of the Civil War, the infamous Columbia County 5 may actually be turning the corner – or not.

Comments  (to add a comment go here) 

On December 8, 2019, retired CCSO Deputy Greg Horne wrote:

I am a retired Sheriff's Deputy from Columbia County. I feel that we the citizens can not afford the jail at this time. 40 plus million in debt is not what we need at this time. People are struggling and a lot of them are county employees. We need to start with being able to take care of our employees by giving raises and help with health insurance for starters.

Mark Hunter is once again trying to show this is his town and he runs everything, but he can't control everything we have to have a group like our commissioners to help make these important decisions that effect all of our community. I don't want my children and grandchildren to start so deep in debt that our county may never grow or pull out of. Commissioner Witt is going against his very reason on why he ran for office.

Thank you to our County Commission for standing up for the county and its citizens. It time to take our county back and move forward with growth, concentrating on our businesses, youth and serving our constituents. We have more to worry about than making sure everyone in jail has a memory foam mattress and color tv. I agree that everyone in jail is not guilty but a week in jail is not going to ruin your life like Mr. Payne suggest. 9 out of 10 times if they are incarcerated wrongly they are suing someone to make up for the week in jail so it all works out in the end.

Let's get back to work caring for our county and start making progress in bringing bigger and better business opportunities to our county.

Greg Horne


This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.