Commissioners wise to take hard look at jail takeover
Hernando TodayThe issue: Sheriff's proposal to take over jail.
Published: March 13, 2010
Published: March 13, 2010
Our opinion: Commissioners smart to look before they leap.
While the offer seemed to come out of nowhere, we're intrigued by Sheriff Richard Nugent's proposal to have the sheriff's department take over operations of the Hernando County Jail.
We're also skeptical.
Nugent says his motivation is to save taxpayers money by operating the jail instead of the private contractor, Corrections Corporations of America, which has operated the facility for the past 22 years.
Nugent gave his pitch to county commissioners on Tuesday, saying he would take over the jail at the current annual contracted cost of $11.2 million. According to CCA's contract with the county, the cost to run the jail next year is expected to increase by about 3 percent.
Last fall, the county renegotiated a two-year contract with CCA, which reduced the daily cost per inmate from $52.83 to $51.67. That contract also includes a 120-day opt-out clause that allows either the county or CCA to break the pact with no penalty.
While Nugent's presentation was interesting and should be appreciated, it was basically devoid of any facts or figures to substantiate his belief he could run the jail at less cost than CCA. He admitted he has no formal plan and wouldn't until after his department took control and evaluated the operation.
That makes us nervous about the idea.
CCA officials say there's no way Nugent's department can run the jail more economically than their company. After all, they have the buying power of an organization that runs 60 jails in 20 states.
Nugent also admitted neither he nor anyone on his staff has any prior experience running a jail.
That gives us pause.
However, if the jail is run as professionally as the sheriff's department, there should be no concerns there.
Nugent also said he would pay employees a higher starting wage, $34,157 compared to the $32,169 CCA pays. That's a $342,000 hike right from the get-go. With county government benefits - insurance, holidays, vacation, etc. - we suspect labor costs would be much higher under the sheriff's control unless the staff was cut.
That makes us wonder where operational savings would be found.
The sheriff noted that phone usage by inmates would generate $150,000 the county never sees and 100 percent of the commissary profits would also go to the revenue side.
"Right now, the county doesn't get a nickel of the commissary money," Nugent said, adding that such sales typically operate on a 20 to 30 percent profit margin.
Nugent also promised he would not come back to the commission at a later date to ask for more money.
If the funds dried up, where would Nugent get the extra cash?
We suspect rent from prisoners from other jurisdictions. Nothing was said about that potential windfall.
In order to prove CCA could operate the jail cheaper, CCA spokesman Steve Owen said his company would be more than willing to open its books to commissioners and the sheriff.
That's when Nugent took a cheap shot at CCA, saying any statistics supplied by the company would be suspect.
"We can look at their books, but their numbers aren't verifiable," Nugent told Hernando Today. "It's a statement of a corporation and those numbers are whatever (it) wants to put in there."
Naturally, Owen took offense to Nugent's remark, saying the company is publically traded and must follow Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.
"It would be unethical for us to put out inaccurate facts and figures," Owen told Hernando Today. "If we felt that the information was not supportive of our contentions, then the logical step would be to not open the books and provide the information."
We sense a battle over the jail is brewing.
So far, CCA seems to have more ammunition than the sheriff.
Here's what we do know about the financial picture of the sheriff's department and CCA's contract with the county over the years.
While the sheriff said his department's budget has increased 83 percent in the past 10 years, he noted that CCA's contract to run the jail has ballooned 194 percent.
In the past six years, Nugent's budget has increased from about $22 million in 2004-05 to about $31 million this year, an increase of about 41 percent.
In the same six years, CCA's cost per inmate per day has increased from $49.06 for an average of 430 inmates per day, to $51.67 for an average of 562 inmates per day. That's a 5.3 percent increase over the same period in cost per inmate per day. Overall, CCA's annual contract to run the jail has jumped from $7.7 million in 2004-05 to $11.2 million this fiscal year. That's an increase of $3.5 million annually, or 45.5 percent.
The big difference is in the number of inmates at the jail - an average of 430 per day in 2004-05 to 520 per day in 2009-10. The more inmates, the higher the cost.
If having the sheriff's office take over the operations of the jail can save money, it makes good sense. If it turns into a bloated bureaucracy, then commissioners may well be begging CCA to take it back.
That could prove expensive.
We know the sheriff could run the jail with the same professionalism he does the sheriff's department. We could be confident that it would be operated at a high level of expertise.
We're just not sure Hernando County could afford it.
County commissioners made the right decision to further explore details on the expenses involved in running the jail and what it likely would cost if the sheriff's department took over operations.
Until more concrete details can show the cost savings of having the sheriff's department run the jail, commissioners should be wary of changing jail administrators in mid-contract.