Age and maintenance issues in section of the jail raise County Commission concerns and questions

Board Chair Maio talks of fear that ‘someone will get hurt’ and embarrassment that county facilities have such situations

Tape holds a panic button to the wall in one section of the jail. Image courtesy Sheriff's Office
Tape holds a panic button to the wall in one section of the jail. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Sarasota County Commission concerns earlier this year about the timing of the replacement of the air conditioning system in the West Jail may have prompted the discussion, but the board members this week saw evidence of just how many problems Sheriff Tom Knight’s staff and the inmates are having to contend with in the 41-year-old building in downtown Sarasota.

From line-of-sight issues that portend danger for deputies to a stuck faucet to the necessity of using zip-ties to hold things together, the 64,352-square-foot structure has “many conditions … that are not going to be solved by maintenance,” Maj. Jeff Bell, a 33-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office who serves as the commander of courts and correctional services, told the County Commission during its regular meeting on June 8.

“Obviously, we’ve got some severe situations over at the jail that need to be addressed,” Commissioner Christine Robinson agreed after watching a 12-minute vide Bell presented, which had been produced by Sheriff’s Office staff, including Bill Spitler, director of research and planning.

The provided close-ups of numerous problems — including tape being used to hold a panic button to the wall. “Some of this stuff — we just really need to be intense about fixing it,” Chair Al Maio said, “Somebody’s going to get hurt, and it’s just embarrassing for our county …”

(To view the video, click on this link provided by the Sheriff’s Office.)

Maio acknowledged that county planning calls for relocating most of the Sheriff’s Office facilities to a Public Safety Campus on Cattlemen Road — next to the county’s Emergency Operations Center — before the County Commission considers building a new jail. Nonetheless, he continued, if he were supervising county maintenance, he would make certain exposed wiring or zip ties or [a] cable … holding up a pipe” would not be among existing conditions in any part of the county’s Detention Center.

The Detention Center is in downtown Sarasota, Image courtesy Sheriff's Office
The Detention Center is in downtown Sarasota, to the east of the historic courthouse, Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Robinson also won her colleagues’ consensus for staff to prepare a future presentation on conditions of all county facilities in an effort for the board to begin planning how best to address maintenance that was deferred as a result of the Great Recession. Jeff Lowdermilk, manager of the county’s Facilities and Fleet Division, told the commissioners he already has been working on a new system of documenting maintenance needs in “real time,” and he has begun contacting staff in counties of comparable size to learn how they deal with facilities issues such as those in the Detention Center.

The history of the Detention Center

A chart shows planned and active maintenance projects in the Detention Center. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A chart shows planned and active maintenance projects in the Detention Center. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During his June 8 presentation, Lowdermilk explained that the Detention Center comprises the West, East and North jails, with a total of 1,021 beds. The East Jail is the second oldest, having been constructed in 1987; the North Jail was built in 2002.

The Sheriff’s Office video Bell showed the board pointed out that although the total space allows for 1,021 inmates, the maximum operating capacity is 867. The video and Lowdermilk both noted that requirements for separating male and female inmates, for example, result in the lower figure.

Moreover, data collected by county staff projects the inmate population to exceed 867 before 2020, Lowdermilk explained.

Among the information it offered, the video included a “snapshot” of inmates on May 19: Out of the total of 863, 710 were males, 149 were females and four were juveniles.

Zip-ties hold pipes in place in the West Jail. Image courtesy Sheriff's Office
Zip-ties hold pipes in place in the West Jail. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

The video narrator also pointed out that the West Jail was built in 1975 for $5.3 million; the East Jail, $12.2 million; and the North Jail, $15.5 million. The total square footage is 362,052, comprising about 10 percent of the overall square footage of county facilities, the video noted. The Westfield Southgate Mall between Siesta Drive and Bee Ridge Road is only slightly larger, the video narrator said.

The annual operating budget of the three sections of the jail is $26.3 million, which is slightly more than the budget for the City of Venice, the video added.

In showing the commissioners a slide about completed jail maintenance projects from the 2014 fiscal year to the present, Lowdermilk explained, “One thing you will notice if you were to total these projects [is that the] dollar amounts [follow] the age of those facilities, with the greatest expense — $1.2 million — reflecting work in the West Jail.

A faucet is in the stuck position in a portion of the West Jail. Image courtesy Sheriff's Office
A faucet is in the stuck position in a portion of the West Jail. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

In regard to future projects, Lowdermilk continued, $3.3 million is the total of those planned for the West Jail, compared to about $750,000 for the East Jail.

Sixty-eight percent of the work orders for all three jails from FY14 through FY16 — with figures for the rest of this year based on trends seen thus far — would be what Lowdermilk called a matter of “reactive maintenance,” instead of “proactive maintenance,” with the latter being efforts to handle problems before they become serious.

And that statistic does not include work undertaken by contractors, Lowdermilk pointed out.

Nonetheless, he said, “We feel like we have the right projects identified to maintain the building condition of these facilities for some time.”

The West Jail air conditioning

This is one example of deterioration in the air conditioning room in the West Jail. Image courtesy Sheriff's Office
This is one example of deterioration in the air conditioning room in the West Jail. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

In response to Robinson’s request for an update on the plans for a new air conditioning system in the West Jail, Lowdermilk said a pre-design meeting was scheduled for that afternoon. The project is to be completed by April 2017, he added. “We do have a fairly lengthy and complex plan to mitigate things if things should start to turn in a bad direction quickly,” he told the board, and staff has coordinated that with the Sheriff’s Office.

“The jail is not a situation where you want folks to be irritated by temperature, for everybody’s safety,” Robinson replied.

The plan should be able to keep the temperature within 2 degrees of 74 degrees, which is about the average level of cooling in the facility, he told her.

“I appreciate the effort that you are putting into this,” Robinson said. “I just hope we can make this happen as quickly as possible.”

Isaac Brownman, the county’s chief engineer and director of the Public Works Department, pointed out that the situation in the West Jail is not as critical as it was when the county replaced the air conditioning system in the East Jail.

“I personally would not want to be around a jail population of 900-plus when they’re overheated and upset,” Maio told Lowdermilk and Brownman. “Please stress that to our folks.”

Line-of-sight issues are a major concern in the West Jail, Major Jeff Bell says. Image courtesy Sheriff's Office
Line-of-sight issues are a major concern in the West Jail, Maj. Jeff Bell says. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Commissioner Charles Hines added, “If the A/C goes out in the library, we have some upset patrons and constituents. In this situation, you have lives at risk, both law enforcement and prisoners, should that situation occur.”

“Our team clearly understands that priority,” Lowdermilk replied.

The overall facilities issue

Maj. Jeff Bell. News Leader photo
Maj. Jeff Bell. News Leader photo

During the June 8 discussion, Robinson pointed out to County Administrator Tom Harmer that prior to his taking that position — starting on an interim basis in late 2013, after the board fired County Administrator Randall Reid — the commission had requested a full review of its facilities and a plan for maintaining them, “and that never came about.”

Such a project was completed for the county’s fleet, she noted, which led to board action to update that portion of county assets. “I’m comfortable, now that we have Mr. Lowdermilk, we can get this straightened out,” she added.

Lowdermilk joined the staff in June 2015, a spokeswoman in the county’s Human Resources Department told The Sarasota News Leader.

Maj. Bell pointed out to the board members that the Sheriff’s Office staff appreciates the relationship it has forged with Lowdermilk.

Lowdermilk explained that he is working on “real-time” building condition assessments, which would enable staff to determine whether maintenance would be sufficient instead of a new capital project in regard to any building, and the data would allow staff to prepare for the pursuit of funding sources as needed.

After Robinson asked that a timeline be established for getting that system operational, Harmer responded that he would schedule a presentation on the process.

Commissioner Carolyn Mason also requested a quarterly report on facilities, which would enable the board to make appropriate decisions.

Robinson than asked Harmer to schedule separate board discussions — one about conditions at the Detention Center and one regarding other county facilities, plus potential funding strategies.

Harmer said he would follow up with staff and plan for the presentations “as soon as practical.”