Florida’s private prison plan comes with unexpected $25 million cost to taxpayers by Steve Bousquet

Posted: August 23, 2011 in News and politics

By Steve Bousquet, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE – The state of Florida will soon privatize 30 prisons to save money, but before that, taxpayers will be on the hook for a payout of up to $25 million.

That’s how much the Department of Corrections says it will cost to pay more than 4,000 displaced state corrections workers for their accumulated vacation time, sick leave and special compensatory time for working on holidays.

The hidden expense was never discussed in public this spring when the Legislature pushed ahead with the most ambitious privatization venture in the history of state government.

Now, the prison system – already coping with a series of budget cuts – is forced to find the money.

“It’s a liability,” said Dan Ronay, the agency’s No. 2 official. “I don’t think anyone can keep running a business if you don’t know what you’re on the hook for.”

A top adviser to Gov. Rick Scott voiced similar concerns.

Bonnie Rogers, who oversees criminal justice spending in Scott’s budget office, told Ronay in an e-mail May 13: “We too have concerns with how this will be managed.”

Ronay had told Rogers in a previous e-mail, “This amount was NOT taken into consideration by the Legislature, even though they were made aware … This payout may just cripple the agency for next FY (fiscal year).”

The e-mail was first obtained by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union for correctional officers. The union has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the privatization.

The prison operations in an 18-county region from Bradenton to Key West will be turned over to a private vendor Jan. 1. The vendor will be required to run prisons for 7 percent less than the state.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who chairs a budget panel overseeing prison spending and who has opposed the privatization from the start, said he plans to hold hearings this fall on the issue.

Fasano accused top lawmakers of bowing to the political influence of a major private prison operator, the GEO Group, which is expected to bid on the regional privatization venture.

“This is all about the almighty dollars for the GEOs of the world,” he said. “It’s all about political contributions that were made, and the taxpayers are going to pay the consequences.”

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who championed the project, did not return phone and text messages seeking comment. He has said in the past that over the long run, privately run prisons will save taxpayers money.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

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