Planning to proceed for 2026 bond referendum to fund Correctional Reintegration Center for Sheriff’s Office, County Commission decides

Project has early estimate of $150 million

This is the updated timeline for the project, presented to the commissioners on Jan. 30. Image courtesy Sarasota County

They voiced concerns not only about whether the funding estimate would be adequate, but also about whether the proposal would prove workable — and even whether the site is appropriate.

Nonetheless, on Jan. 30, the Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously to authorize county administrative and other staff members “to move forward,” as Chair Michael Moran put it, “with whatever it takes for a timeline to get a referendum in front of Sarasota County voters” in 2026, so a new correctional facility could be constructed in downtown Sarasota, and the West Wing of the jail could be renovated.

As Moran pointed out, he is the only member of the board who was on the dais when discussions originally were conducted with representatives of the county’s Criminal Justice Commission and Sheriff’s Office personnel about constructing what has been dubbed the Sarasota County Correctional Reintegration Center (SCCRC), to allow the agency to remove from the jail individuals who have been incarcerated for mental health and substance abuse issues, so they can receive the appropriate treatment with the hope that that will reduce recidivism.

The facility was described to past commissions as a means, as well, of reducing the overcrowding in the jail.

As Moran noted during the Jan. 30 discussion, even though the jail’s capacity is supposed to be 836, the population routinely surpasses that. The latest reports he had seen, he said, put the figure around 1,050.

Capital Projects Manager Brad Gaubatz addresses the commissioners on Jan. 30. News Leader image

Yet, Brad Gaubatz, manager of the county’s Capital Projects Department, noted during his Jan. 30 presentation, it likely would be the first half of 2032 before the Correctional Reintegration Center could be completed and inmates moved into it.

Several commissioners raised concerns about that timeline in regard to whether the jail capacity issue might have worsened by that time, with the new facility insufficient to resolve it.

At one point, Moran stressed that even an eighth-grader could understand that, given the population growth the county has seen in the past couple of years, and the expectation that the number of residents will continue to climb, more people will have to be incarcerated in the coming years.

Moreover, he said, the proposal for the new facility combined with the West Wing Jail renovations “is going to cost an incredible amount of money …”

A staff memo included in the Jan. 30 agenda packet projected the total expense of the Correctional Reintegration Center and the West Wing Jail project at “close to” $150 million.

That was up from the projection of $101 million in February 2022, the memo pointed out.

During the Jan. 30 discussion, Commissioner Neil Rainford said, “I see this thing having a price tag like $300 million.”

“Assuming a 30-[year] bond with 5% interest, the annual debt service payment for the $150,000,000 to construct the SCCRC is estimated to be almost $9.9 million,” the staff memo noted, adding that that “would equate to a debt millage rate of 0.0772 mills (or a tax of $1.93/month on [property valued at $300,000 for tax purposes].”

Further, the memo noted, the annual operating budget for the Correctional Reintegration Center has been calculated as $10,100,805, based on “today’s dollars.”

That figure did not include the expenses related to staffing of the new facility or programming of its services, the memo added.

Moran’s motion also called for staff to proceed with any expansion of the scope of work found necessary for the SCCRC and West Wing Jail initiatives, as well as a study of the West Wing renovations in the jail.

“We’re starting the West Wing study right now,” Gaubatz of Capital Projects told the board members.

As Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham noted at the beginning of the Jan. 30 presentation, the site where the SCCRC would be constructed is the former location of the county’s Central Energy Plant. The latter was replaced a couple of years ago with a modern structure near the intersection of Ringling Boulevard and School Avenue in downtown Sarasota.

Cunningham also explained that the Correctional Reintegration Center would have to be used to house the West Wing Jail inmates while the renovations were underway in the West Wing.

Gaubatz pointed out that, after the inmates move into the new West Wing, inmates could be admitted to the SCCRC.

Staff should be able to provide an update to the commissioners late this year or in early January 2025, Gaubatz indicated, regarding the details of that West Wing study and the overall initiative. Then the commissioners would have the opportunity to decide the “go or no go” question, as he put it, for the bond referendum.

Site constraints and more funding questions

As the discussion continued, Commissioner Rainford asked Gaubatz, “How do we structure the referendum?”

“It’s tough,” Gaubatz replied. Staff will factor in price escalations and extra funding for contingency purposes when it calculates the final figure for the bonds, he added. “We get the best information we can.”

Nonetheless, Gaubatz acknowledged that staff would have to work with the revenue produced by the bonds that the voters agreed to support.

The referendum is necessary because Section 5.2D of the Sarasota County Charter limits how much money the county can issue in bonds without a vote of citizens.

This is the section of the Sarasota County Charter in regard to bond referenda. Image courtesy Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller Karen Rushing

Focusing again on the jail capacity issue, Rainford pointed out that, by the year 2034, the county could still end up with the same level of overcrowding in the jail that the Sheriff’s Office has been experiencing. He did acknowledge, “I know the property has constraints, and I don’t have a great answer on how to deal with that.”

Gaubatz also emphasized during his presentation that the site of the work is within the jurisdiction of the City of Sarasota, which means county staff will have to go through the city’s permitting process and comply with the city’s construction regulations. The goals, Gaubatz said, would be to maximize the use of the space for the new facility and to make the West Wing as modern as possible.

At one point, Commissioner Smith joked that if the commissioners were to include affordable housing in the project, they could exceed the normal city height restriction for the site, as the state’s Live Local Act regarding affordable housing makes the extra height an option.

The jail complex is zoned Downtown Core in the City’s Code of Ordinances. That puts the maximum building height at 10 stories.

Smith asked that county staff discuss with city staff the potential for the county to be able to obtain a variance to construct a taller building on the proposed SCCRC site, or whether other options could be pursued, in accord with city regulations, since the structure will serve the entire county.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis noted that the architect hired to design the SCCRC has been working to maximize the use of the space available for the structure, given the law enforcement requirements for such facilities.

This area map shows the location of the jail in downtown Sarasota, between Main Street and Ringling Boulevard. Image from Google Maps

“Should we be looking for a different site?” Smith asked.

The presentation that day was based on the direction staff had been given, Lewis replied. Further, Lewis said, as he understands the information he has received, Sheriff Kurt Hoffman believes the SCRCC “is the way to go.”

“I don’t know that you have a lot more options at this site,” Lewis stressed. The sheriff would need to be involved in discussions about a change in plans, Lewis added.

Chair Moran asked Gaubatz for the number of beds that the Correctional Reintegration Center will be designed to hold.

The figure is 300, Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, reminded Gaubatz.

In response to another question from Moran, Gaubatz said the West Wing of the jail houses between 100 and 130 inmates.

Gaubatz stressed of the West Wing, “It needs [renovations]. It’s in bad repair; it’s the oldest structure there.”

He added of Sheriff’s Office personnel, “They’ve been piecemealing renovations … because there’s no place to move the prisoners.”

In the summer of 2016, the Sheriff’s Office invited members of the news media to tour the entire jail, including the West Wing. At that time, staff members pointed to a wide variety of problems with the outdated design, including difficulties that Corrections Division personnel have in keeping an eye on inmates, to guard against an individual trying to inflict harm on himself or herself, for example.

This is the view into a cell in the West Wing, the oldest part of the jail, in June 2016. File photo

Commissioner Rainford concurred with Gaubatz’s comments about the necessity of the West Wing renovations.

Moran took the opportunity to remind his colleagues that, several years ago, representatives of the Criminal Justice Commission and the Sheriff’s Office persuaded the commission at that time to approve funding for the 40-bed Community Offender Rehabilitative Treatment facility (CORT), which would be created in a renovated, secured building on the campus of First Step of Sarasota as a three-year pilot program. That facility was planned to serve inmates with mental health and/or substance abuse issues, to reduce recidivism, as well.

As he has in meetings over the past couple of years, Moran pointed out, “We’re supposed to be getting 40 folks in there, and we’re not even close.”

Moran noted that the Correctional Reintegration Center would be “literally part of the jail,” unlike the CORT facility. “But the concept [of the SCCRC] is the same, to me.”

In regard to the SCCRC, Moran continued, “I want grinding detail” on what the taxpayers will get for the money spent.