I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why Rebuild the Jail?

Over the next several months, various proposals will be put together in anticipation of Escambia County building a brand-new, state-of-the art jail.
The cost is estimated to be $100-$150 Million dollars.
This facility will replace our current facility, which was badly damaged in an April, 2014 flood and subsequent natural gas explosion.
Obviously, we need a place to house our inmates; just today our inmate count is 1,484 in custody (875 in our main jail, 262 at our work release facility, 61 at the road camp, and 286 in Walton County.)
But is rebuilding the jail the best way forward?  A look at some figures provided by County Staff paints an interesting picture…
From the staff:
Right now Walton County is taking our excess inmates for less than $50 dollars per day.  In FY2013 the per-inmate cost of the Sheriff’s office running the jail was $60.39.  In FY 2014, the Sheriff requested a budget for the jail that equaled $80.61 per inmate.  When the BCC took back the jail and prior to the 2014 explosion, we were spending $65.00 per inmate.  Now, with some inmates here and some in Walton County—we are spending $72.77 daily.
When I asked why the costs were escalating even given the fact that Walton County is providing services at far less costs than we were able to do it and the number of inmates was/is increasing (which in theory should lower the per inmate, per day costs)-I was told it is/was because we have not reduced our fixed costs,; we have not reduced staffing despite many inmates being housed out

of our county.  Additionally, we incurred additional expenses when we housed some prisoners in Santa Rosa County—which we are no longer doing.  On top of this, we have had a dramatic uptick in the number of prisoners with serious health conditions that we pay to treat.
Exacerbating these problems, I was just told today that the $30.3Million in insurance money we received after the 2014 explosion is slated to be gone by October/November of this year.  I’m told roughly $4 Million of this was used to make repairs to facilities that were damaged at that time —and the balance was/is being utilized to finance costs associated with the housing of prisoners in Walton and Santa Rosa Counties over the last nearly three years.

I have some questions about this....
Why  was this $30.4 million in insurance money  not set-aside in a rebuilding fund? I will never understand why this did not happen.  Why would we use this one-time money for ongoing operating expenses (rather than utilizing budgeted corrections money for this)?
Why have we waited so long and moved so slowly toward a solution to this issue?
So now we have high-priced consultants managing the selection process that has narrowed the field to 3 bidders who will present the board with conceptual ideas in July/August of this year….for the construction of a brand-new jail for between $100-$150 Million dollars. 

It is my understanding that we will be receiving roughly $50Million from FEMA for rebuilding our jail.  We will be on the hook for the delta between the actual cost of the facility and the $50Million from FEMA.  This could be as much as $100Million.
Forgive me for not being optimistic – but this process has not gone well thus far.  I’m new on the board, but I’m quickly learning that we have made some serious mistakes with this process, and I do not want to compound the whole thing with a giant, catastrophic mistake on the rebuilding of the jail.
Let’s look at the property we purchased on which to build the jail.  On the private market, it was recently under contract by a huge national retailer for $1.9Million dollars.  That deal fell apart.  The property was then appraised and came in at under $3million in worth.  The county then paid $4.5 Million for this same property.  Why?  Why did we overpay by $1.6Million?
We have a superfund site where we could have built for significantly less cost, but the decision was made not to build there.  Why?
The county has property up by the road camp where a facility could have been built—why was this not considered?  The county has property adjacent to HWY 29 where the soccer complex was going to be built in the early 2000s—with utilities and infrastructure already in place—why did we not decide to build the jail there?
As it stands now, we are able to shoe-horn in about 1,200 prisoners in existing correctional facilities in Escambia County.
We *might* be able to acquire property in Santa Rosa County (Berrydale) where an additional 167 or so inmates could be housed—but there are some potentially insurmountable problems coming up with that idea that might make that option impractical.

So, in addition to the 1,200 or so that we can currently house in Escambia County—why not look at less expensive options for housing the additional 200-300 inmates per day?
How about a tent-city facility in order to temporarily house inmates in excess of 1,200?  This is legal and it is done in other locations with great success.

How about building temporary prison housing for the extra inmates, while simultaneously spending money modernizing the current facilities in the county instead of incurring $100Million or more in new debt? 

There are companies that specialize in this type of construction and they do it quickly and lease the facilities back to the end-user for as long as required.  At the end of the lease, there are even ways to structure a purchase agreement to own such facilities outright.   Right after the jail exploded, I’m told by well-placed sources that no longer work for the county that the construction and lease of temporary facilities proposal was forwarded –but it was summarily rejected.  I wonder why?
How about signing a long-term agreement with Walton County to keep up to 300 prisoners—apparently they can do it much cheaper than we can.  Why not do this, lower our staffing commensurate to the number of prisoners we actually oversee in order to reduce our fixed costs?
Right now I am dismayed by what I am seeing going on with the whole issue.  It is time for creativity, decisiveness, and action.  I’m not convinced that pushing ahead with one of the most expensive capital projects in the history of Escambia County is the right move right now. 

I’m concerned this could be the beginning of a money pit the likes of which nobody around here has ever witnessed, and I’m not sure I want any part of that.

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