Monday, January 29, 2007

A new jail for Sarasota County? Part 4

Sarasota County commissioners will wait for more information before spending thousands on a new detention facility.

The commissioners unanimously decided Tuesday to table the decision to grant a $209,100 contract with Liebert and Associates for planning and design consulting. The firm previously worked on several improvements to the current county jail.

The commissioners felt that a new jail may not be immediately necessary.

"We've invested a fair amount of dollars and are continuing to do so on jail diversionary programs," said Commission Chair Nora Patterson. "We did that based on the concept that it was a whole lot cheaper and logical to do something more productive to positively influence people's lives, rather than sticking them in jail."

"I don't know anything about the Liebert firm at all," said Commissioner Joe Barbetta.

He pointed out that other counties utilized a "renowned" consulting firm from Kansas City called Justice Concepts, which was not on the bid list.

Commissioner Shannon Staub voiced reservations of her own, based on the fact that she and her colleagues had not received minutes from the criminal justice commission.

"We're sort of out of the loop totally, as far as I'm concerned," Staub said.

She supported Commissioner Paul Mercier's earlier suggestion that instead of building a new jail of its own, the county might explore combining its resources with other counties on a jointly run facility.

"We have had informal discussions with two of our surrounding counties, one of whom (DeSoto County) is actually beginning the jail-siting process right now," said Assistant County Administrator David Bullock. "I can tell you this. There is interest in that county (for) some combined (effort)."

"I'd like to get an analysis of what type of jail we need," Patterson said.

"This is a first step in a long process," said James Schulz, criminal justice policy coordinator. "We're bringing in somebody to help us answer these questions. Internally, we have some of these ideas. We do not have a place in mind inside or outside the boundaries of the county. That's why, from lessons learned in the past, we are bringing in someone early in the process."

"This is a monumental decision and I don't want to see a split vote," said Commissioner Jon Thaxton. "And I'm uncomfortable with the hesitation I hear from my colleagues, whose opinions I trust."

Thaxton proposed postponing action on the consulting contract in order for staff to explore other options. Patterson then proposed four things staff should consider:

* How a regional jail might come about through cooperation with other counties.

* How the existing facility can be better utilized.

* What type of facility is required.

* Whether the public wants it.

"If it's within shooting distance of Sarasota County, we need a public demonstration that a facility is needed," Patterson said.

By Steven J. Smith

Staff Writer Sun Newspapers

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