Sarasota County Commissioners take step towards construction of $150m prison

Written by on Friday, February 9, 2024

But there is confusion whether this actually IS a prison.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Feb. 9, 2024

Host: $150 million. That’s – at minimum – how much Sarasota taxpayers would be on the hook for to build a new county prison. But wait – is this actually a prison? It was the county’s social services chief who presented a bond proposal to county commissioners, not the sheriff. And county commissioners did not get a clear answer whether this project responds to a growing prison population. WSLR News’ Ramon Lopez has more.

Ramon Lopez: With the blessing of all Sarasota County Commissioners on Jan. 30, preparations are now underway for a November 2026 voter referendum.

It would fund a downtown Sarasota County Correctional Reintegration Center and rebuild the west wing of the Sarasota County Jail at a current estimated cost of $150 million, versus $101 million projected in 2022.

A voter referendum is needed since the construction will surpass the county’s current bonding limit of $25.8 million. The 200-bed secured treatment facility will be located at the former location of the Central Energy Plant at 2020 Main Street. A favorable taxpayer vote would allow for the design and construction work between 2028 and 2031. The
Center would be open for business the following year.

The location of the new jail would be in the shady area on Main Street, backing into the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office building.

The Sheriff’s Office and the Sarasota County Department of Human Services are working together on the project. The Correctional Reintegration Center would remove from the jail individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues. The Center would focus on reentry, and hopefully reduce recidivism and the jail population. The jail is supposed to handle 836 inmates, but the figure is around 1,050.

The county commissioners asked whether the proposed building projects would help the county handle projected inmate population growth in the coming years. Commission Chairman Mike Moran:

Mike Moran: An eighth-grader can understand the amount of population growth that we see coming about. Again, you do not need to be a social scientist to understand that you’re going to have growth in lots of different things, including corrections. This is going to cost an incredible amount of money to actually fix. We’re talking about a specific renovation, to maybe take a little pressure off this, to maximize an existing property that we own, control, have authority over to make changes to. That’s what’s before us. I think what I’m starving for is, do we need to resurrect conversations with a separate discussion item? The conversation needs to be had now.

RL: That issue of prisoner growth was probably better addressed by Sheriff Kurt Hoffman, who did not testify at the hearing.

In the end, the county commissioners voted to move the voter referendum forward. But the adopted motion also considered how best to deal with more jail inmates.

MM: The motion is to authorize the county administrator and staff to move forward with whatever it takes for a timeline, to get a referendum in front of the Sarasota County voters related to corrections, including expanding the scope, if necessary, beyond what’s before us today. In addition, it gives you authority to move forward with the study related to the West Wing.

Charter boat use of public ramps

RL: Meanwhile, the Sarasota County Commissioners directed staffers to seat a two-month task force to find a way to handle long-
standing illegal charter boat use of county-run public park boat ramps.

The county park staff had recommended a six-month run for the task force. The commissioners said that was too long. They want a solution to the issue four months sooner.

As it now stands, the commissioners would formally establish the task force later in February. In April, they will review task force applicants and select the members. The task force would then start work in early summer.

Last October, the commissioners got an earful from local charter fishing boat captains. They protested a proposed move to restrict their long-term use of county docks to pick up and drop off customers. The commissioners heard the concerns of the charter captains. And it was decided that a task force would be created to tackle the issue. Commissioner Joe Neunder remains sympathetic to the plight of non-compliant boat operators.

Joe Neunder: We have operators that are using our county facilities not in the proper fashion of our current ordinance and language within our parks. I’m also sympathetic to the fact that we have individuals that for the past three or four decades have been picking up in our community, within our taxpayer funded county park system, to do your business, and I’m sympathetic to private business. I am a private business owner. However, I want to be very clear, and I’ve said it before: You have to pay to play.

RL: This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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