By Barbara Behrendt,
St. Petersburg Times (FLA) Staff Writer
In Print: Saturday, June 19, 2010
BROOKSVILLE — Situated beside the central booking area, the control room is the high-tech heart of security operations for the Hernando County Jail.
In that secure room, employees watch monitors showing every corner of the facility, remotely operate locks, store the important keys and charge the radios that provide needed communication throughout the facility.
There in that room is another critical piece of equipment: The big yellow bucket.
The bucket is essential on rainy days when the compromised roof lets water seep in, follow pipes and other conduit and drip down into the ceiling of the control room.
Ceiling tiles show tell-tale water marks and some of the tiles are just not there, allowing a glimpse up into the guts of the building where someone once tried a makeshift fix that doesn't fix anything.
Wearing a grim expression, Maj. Michael Page, Sheriff Richard Nugent's newly chosen jail administrator, stood under that leaky spot this week.
It was the last stop on a tour aimed at showing that while a preliminary engineering report found no major structural flaws, a lack of maintenance and oversight over the course of years have created serious problems that Nugent will inherit when he takes over the facility in August.
Page, who has a long career of running jails and prisons as well as inspecting them for a living, has formed a lot of opinions about the Hernando facility.
The facility has design flaws and some of the operational decisions by Corrections Corporation of America, which has run the jail for 22 years, don't make sense, he said. Page added those issues can be addressed later.
The problems would best be solved with a bulldozer, he noted, but he lives in the real world of shrinking tax dollars to run government facilities. Hernando officials will have to settle for major repairs that keep it from raining inside, stop further deterioration and, most importantly, maintain security.
The full scope of those repairs has yet to be assessed. But the initial report of no structural safety concerns — combined with a record of satisfactory inspections by jail inspectors over the years — raises questions about just how much money Nugent really needs to improve the jail.
The County Commission already has set aside $3 million from its reserves to fix the jail. But several commissioners have said the problems are more cosmetic and do not need that level of repair.
These questions are sure to be on the minds of commissioners during budget workshops Wednesday and Thursday as they will discuss drastic cuts in county programs and services to stem a $10 million deficit in next year's county budget.
For their part, sheriff's officials are insisting that the problems at the jail are more numerous and serious than commissioners realize.
During the tour, Page pointed to an exterior wall where a section had clearly been repaired because it didn't match its surrounding surfaces. Above the spot, windows were ringed by a cloudy haze.
Such windows stretched down the side of the structure, a sign, according to Page, that the ongoing water intrusion had seeped between the layers of glass and adhesive that make the windows strong, and weakened them.
In another stretch of exterior wall, the bottom of every outside door was crusty with rust. Page and sheriff's Lt. Jim Powers kicked gently at the doors and big flakes of the decaying door broke off.
The lock on one door was so loose it nearly came out when touched.
Assistant warden Orlando Rodriguez just shook his head at the sight. CCA, he said, had told the county many times that the doors needed replacing but there was never money to do that.
Yes, there were dollars set aside in the budget for such things but never enough to do the job, Rodriguez said.
The rust on the hinges of a huge door leading to a service way for the building's air conditioner was so bad that Page assumed trying to open the door would make it fall out.
In an office area, a rag hung above a fluorescent light fixture to catch dripping water. In another office, a carpet covers a trap door under which gray water runs.
"This is crap,'' an employee wrote on the message board in one office.
In an exercise yard for inmates, the concrete slopes the wrong way — away from the drain — directing water right into the metal door of the inmate housing area.
At another exercise yard, the door is too warped to easily open when it needs to be opened and its frame fits so poorly that from inside an observer can see daylight through the crack between door frame and wall.
Rodriguez said that CCA has done the routine maintenance that it is required to do, painting and fixing plumbing problems.
But Page is skeptical. There were certainly places that a little paint would have averted bigger problems later. But, then, the county didn't make CCA maintain the building, either. "Everyone's at fault,'' he said.
It all came down to skimping to save money, he said. The county did it. CCA did it.
That has undermined the building and now, as county officials prepare to talk about where to spend their money in 2010, Page clearly stated, "this is a county's building. It's not the sheriff's.''
The task ahead, he said, was to "make it livable.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.