Dollars and liability have been a focus for recent debate among county commissioners concerning the Gulf County Jail.
That debate has echoed one of a decade ago.
The Board of County Commissioners currently oversees the jail largely due to events of roughly 10 years past. Then, former Gulf County Sheriff Dalton Upchurch, after a series of acrimonious Board of County Commissioners meetings, ceremoniously turned over the keys to the jail to the BOCC.
Upchurch waged a public campaign seeking funding to address maintenance deficiencies, in particular leaky roof and exterior walls.
Upchurch called the jail a “lawsuit waiting to happen” and finally decided he was not willing to accept the liability of operating the jail without the dollars to fix problems.
Ten years later the BOCC has invested several thousand dollars to improve the footprint of the aging jail and have reduced the operating budget.
Commissioners praise jail administrator Michael Hammond for consistently returning a portion of his annual budget to the general fund and have taken a decidedly hands-off approach to Hammond’s supervision.
“What’s the point of having someone supervising something and you don’t listen to them?” Commissioner Tan Smiley recently asked.
However, Commissioner Joanna Bryan has argued the jail carries plenty of liability – the level unknown due to the lack of recent inspections – and in a time when her fellow commissioners are examining a host of budget options, from cuts to new taxes, Bryan wonders if the jail’s $1.2 million budget isn’t worth a long look.
Bryan’s proposals have met a united opposition not seen directed at a single commissioner since a previous board ousted former commissioner Nathan Peters, Jr. as chair in a false step toward county-wide voting.
She raised the issue first during budget discussions and when she brought the jail to the floor at the last meeting, the response from commissioners ranged from chilly to acrimonious.
With the board looking at some $2 million in cuts from department budget requests while considering a 5-cent a gallon gas tax, an additional penny in bed tax and increases to tipping and beach driving fees, Bryan wondered if the savings realized by sending female inmates to be housed in Bay County couldn’t translate for the male population.
“What if we farm out the male population?” Bryan said.
Based on numbers provided by county staff, Bryan contended there was savings of nearly half a million dollars.
The cost to house an inmate per day in Gulf County is $79.21, based on population averages and the jail’s $1.2 million budget.
The average inmate count is 42; the low has been 17 and the population does not exceed 80, according to statistics provided by county administrator Don Butler.
The winter and holidays are typically when the population is low; it swells in warm months and before circuit court days.
The cost of housing an inmate in Bay County is $41 per day.
Based on an average of 42 inmates, that translates into an annual cost of $628,530, or a savings of more than half a million dollars.
“This would benefit Bay County to fill its jail and will shift the costs and liability out of the county,” Bryan said.
Those numbers do not include transportation back and forth to Bay County, but Bryan has contended the issue should be examined.
Commissioner Warren Yeager, at least initially, agreed.
“I am all for thinking outside the box,” Yeager said. “I am not for raising the millage rate.”
Hammond said staff had run numbers before to assess the costs, but with the male population the savings to the county were not as significant as with the women.
He told Bryan he would run the numbers again but those have yet to be provided.
As for liability, Bryan has recommended an inspection of the jail by the Florida Sheriff’s Association.
That recommendation was met with uniform dissent from fellow commissioners – in a flashback to the county-wide debates of the prior decade – as well as a first in recent years at the BOCC; defiance from staff in the face of direction from a commissioner.
The closest instance of actions similar to Hammond’s stated refusal to allow Bryan and an inspector entry to the jail was a profane outburst directed at a commissioner by a staff member during an insurance debate several years ago.
That employee was terminated after the public incident.
“I have a right to have that jail inspected,” Bryan said in the face of Hammond’s refusal to allow an inspection without a vote of the full board.
The inspection is the responsibility of the jail administrator under Florida law.
Liability rests with Hammond and, given Hammond’s role as a county employee, the Board of County Commissioners, according to state statutes governing jails.
Based on information provided by the Florida Sheriff’s Association, which had offered a free jail inspection, Bryan contends an inspection should be performed annually; inspections are performed at other jails, including small counties, despite Hammond’s statement otherwise; and that to not undertake an inspection leaves the county open to liability.
“We have an issue with liability,” Bryan said. “With an inspection, at least it shows we are trying to do something.”
Ignorance of the problems at the jail – and county staff acknowledged the jail does not meet Modern Jail Standards, the template for inspections – is not a defense against liability.
The county, Bryan contends, has a duty to protect and failure to do so is “deliberate indifference.”
“You can’t afford to meet Modern Jail Standards,” Hammond told commissioners. “My recommendation is not to do it.”
Bryan has also been informed that given Hammond’s stance, sending an inspector to the jail would not be an option through the Florida Sheriff’s Association.