Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Part I: The Hunter-Hilton (proposed County Jail) Goes Down for the Count

But First, the Relatively Calm Part of the Meeting

The Columbia County 5 listen to a presentation by County Manager Ben Scott
From left to right: Clerk Katrina Vercher, Commissioners: Ford, Nash, Witt, Williams, Murphy; County Attorney Joel Foreman. Standing: County Manager Ben Scott

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Wednesday evening, the Columbia County 5, 3 years after again deciding to build a new county jail, met to decide jail options and financing. Part I is the conversational part of the meeting. Part II will be the confrontational part of the meeting.


The present County Jail was built in 1983-84. The recent history of the County Jail began a few years ago. A big part of the recent saga was the 2018 hair brained scheme to raise an infrastructure sales tax to pay for the replacement of the jail, but tell the people that the tax was for roads.

The County 5 had numerous town hall meetings to push the concept.

The meetings were introduced as a way "to do our best to inform the constituents of Columbia County about the needs of the County when it comes to roads." (Commissioner Ronald Williams)

However, the real purpose of the meetings was to convince the public that the county jail is falling down, that it can't be renovated, and that the only way to pay for it is to implement the new Charter County Infrastructure Sales Tax to pay for the County's roads, thus enabling The 5 to take road money already in the bank and use it to pay for the new Hunter Hilton, the proposed $30mil plus county jail. (See: County 5 Took Its Road Show to Dist. I to Promote the New Hunter Hilton (Jail) & Extort New Taxes)

After the first couple of meetings, Sheriff Hunter went MIA, leaving his hapless staff to push the project that was losing public support every day.

During those meetings, the Sheriff's Office was not leveling with the public, jacking up the average daily population of the jail, leaving stuff at the jail unrepaired to make it look like the jail was falling down, and explaining to the public that the jail needed a new roof and the best way to replace the roof was to replace the jail.

In the end, the County 5's financing scheme was so confusing and disingenuous that some of the commissioners and high ranking County staff voted against it and the public voted it down.

At the end of 2018, The 5 agreed on a $25 mil budget for the new jail. A couple of weeks ago, the jail came in $10 mil over before it ever left the drawing board. Adding in financing and other costs, the final price tag for the new jail would have been $40 mil plus.

Wednesday evening, The 5 met to decide what they were going to do.

Spread Sheet showing the Average Daily Population (ADP) of the Columbia County Jail
ADP at the County Jail was trending downward until this year. Click here to enlarge graphic.

Real Time

After a rundown of the County's economic position and jail financing options by County Manager Ben Scott, Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter was invited to the microphone by Chairman Ronald Williams.

Sheriff Hunter told the County 5, "We've been down this road for a long time. The need is there for a new facility."

Sheriff Mark Hunter makes his case at the beginning of the meeting.
Sheriff Mark Hunter makes his case at the beginning of the meeting.

The Sheriff spoke about separating inmates according to classification, but did not give any real life examples of how these requirements are impacting the present county jail.

However, he did mention that going with the new jail would give the County the ability to "build out a core as we need to support 512 inmates for the future."

Sheriff Hunter did not say where these inmates would come from, nor did he mention a projected County population that would be needed to fill a 512 bed jail.

The Sheriff  also claimed, as he has in the past, that the "jail is wore out," adding as another of his reasons to build a new, from the ground-up jail, that folks would "not know what they will find during a renovation."

Sheriff Hunter asked The 5, "The other thing is, we've got a design. Are we going to have to pay someone else to go in and redo that?"

No one answered.

Blair Payne, Third Judicial Circuit Public Defender: In Favor

Blair Payne: Third Circuit Public DefenderPublic Defender Blair Payne addressed The 5:  "Our office is probably the most frequent outside user of the jail than anybody around. I echo Sheriff Hunter's comments, 'We need a new facility.' It is outdated... Most of those folks out there haven't been convicted of anything. They are awaiting trial or disposition of their cases.... I think looking into the future we need to look into how we can decrease the population of the jail..."

The Public Defender continued, explaining his two biggest concerns about the present jail are medical facilities and "that jail is probably the largest houser of mentally ill people in the Third Judicial Circuit. It is amazing how many people in jail have mental health issues. There is not an adequate place to deal with those people..."

Blair Payne: Third Circuit Public DefenderMr. Payne continued, explaining the advantages of a new jail (the 365 bed version): "It could possibly lead to more people receiving County Jail time, instead of being sent to state prison... That would allow people to stay close to family. It would allow Sheriff Hunter to expand his work release program.... That keeps people home and working. Even four or five days in the County Jail can ruin somebody's life: they can lose a job; their car can get repossessed; they can't make their light bill. I am in favor of anything that will allow us expand a work release program... People will tell you that people that have contact with their families are less apt to cause problems."

Mr. Payne concluded by saying he didn't know about the money, but he felt the jail needs to be replaced now because, "That place is falling down."

Next to the microphone was Earl Peeler, a member of the Columbia County Planning and Zoning Board and a staunch supporter of Sheriff Hunter.

Mr. Peeler addressed The 5: "I'm here on behalf of the jail. My thoughts are go whole hog... We're going to have to bite the bullet sooner or later... Let's give the Sheriff a decent jail, something the County would be proud of to house the prisoners. Let's go whole hog and go with the 43 million. I'll give you an extra thousand dollars a year to help pay for it."

Rhett Calloway, a life-long Columbian, came to the microphone and told The 5: "I kind of echo what Mr. Peeler said. We've been kickin' the can down the road... I believe 83% of the people voted to reelect Sheriff Hunter. That means the people trust him. I trust him. I trust Sheriff Hunter to make the best decision that he knows how for this county... I think it would be unwise to remodel our existing facility."

Part II coming Sunday, the County 5 and Sheriff Hunter face off. It wasn't pretty.

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