One month after jail explosion, costs mount

( - One month after a natural gas explosion devastated Escambia County's Central Booking and Detention Facility, the financial consequences of the disaster are mounting.

The blast ripped through the building's flooded basement about 11 p.m. April 30 — killing two inmates, paralyzing a correctional officer and wounding more than 180 others.

Though the human toll of the event was stark and apparent, the financial toll remains unclear. A public records request for that information is pending. However, as of Monday, available records showed the costs already had soared past $6.8 million.

That tally includes $224,000 spent on medical care, $50,000 for mental health counseling, $20,000 for legal services and nearly $1 million for work on the facility's damaged chiller plant, which provided air conditioning to the Sheriff's Office Administration Building, the main jail and the juvenile justice facility.

However, the majority of the money — some $5 million — went toward housing displaced inmates.

The county was forced to find new homes for more than 400 after the blast.

Now, male inmates are being housed at either the main jail, the Escambia County Road Prison in Cantonment or the Escambia County Work Release center on Fairfield Drive.

Meanwhile, female prisoners are being housed in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties.

Faced with decreasing capacity at the county's own correctional facilities and mounting costs to house inmates elsewhere, officials have started evaluating the alternatives.

The county already has issued a request for qualifications for firms interested in building a temporary facility to house the inmates. The responses to that RFQ were received May 30.

Escambia County spokeswoman Kathleen Dough-Castro said a follow-up RFP — which will identify costs per inmate and the timeline for constructing a new facility — could go out as soon as this week and that negotiations could begin by the end of the month.

In the interim, the county has contracted with consulting firm Carter Goble Lee to analyze the costs and benefits of constructing such a facility versus continuing to house inmates out of county. Castro said the evaluation — which cost the county $110,000 — was a prerequisite to seeking reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Though a temporary facility might reduce the county's costs in the short term, Castro said the county eventually would need to construct a permanent replacement facility. That effort will also require a full assessment of the options. At the most basic level, commissioners will have to decide whether to rebuild the facility at its current, flood-prone location or move it to another site.

County Commissioners have not yet made a decision on that point, but several have said they don't wish to rebuild at the Leonard Street site, which has flooded multiple times in years past — most recently, prior to the April flood, in 2012.

If the county were to move the facility to a different location, officials also would consider relocating the main jail — located nearby and also flood-prone — and consolidating the two into a single, new jail, Castro said. That would mean delaying a planned $6 million renovation of the main jail building.

Whatever commissioners decide, the reconstruction will not be cheap, and it isn't yet clear how all the costs will be financed.

Amy Lovoy, budget chief for the county, told commissioners last month that the cost would likely top the total insurable value of the facility — the county carries $45 million in wind and fire and $25 million in flood insurance for the building.

A portion of the balance could be covered by FEMA public assistance grants. Castro said Monday that the federal government would reimburse the county for 75 percent of eligible costs. The state would pick up half the remaining tab — leaving the county to pay 12.5 percent of the total.

Escambia County Commission Chairman Lumon May on May 20 sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, requesting that the state cover the county's portion, as well. As of Monday, the governor had not responded, Castro said.


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