BOCC updated on timelines for free jail calls

Alachua County Jail
Alachua County Jail
Photo courtesy ASO

Timelines for free calls at the Alachua County Jail and a mental health central receiving facility came before the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) at its regular meeting on Tuesday.  

On April 6, the board directed staff and the sheriff’s office to start working toward free calls for jail inmates as soon as possible. Deputy County Manager Carl Smart returned on Tuesday with an amendment for the BOCC to approve its contract with Securus, the company providing calls at the jail.  

The new amendment immediately lowers the cost per minute from 21 cents to 12 cents. Currently, Alachua County pockets 9 cents while Securus earns the other 12 cents, but the amendment drops the county portion.  

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Ken Cornell
Courtesy of Alachua County Ken Cornell

The amendment is a temporary measure to reduce costs as the county aims for free calls by Oct. 1.  

Smart said county staff is working with Sherrif Clovis Watson Jr. and his staff to craft a new request for proposals. In Tuesday’s motion to approve the new amendment, Commissioner Ken Cornell added that staff bring back the request for proposals to the BOCC by May 23.  

If the draft meets with BOCC approval, Alachua County will open the process for companies to apply in order to receive a contract with the BOCC to provide the phone calls. That contract would have Alachua County pay the entire cost of the calls.  

"I want us to get the RFP out on the street so we can kinda see what the options are,” Cornell said. 

Commissioner Mary Alford seconded the motion, and Chair Anna Prizzia backed up the process. She said the county will create an interim reduction in cost until it can cover it completely in October.  

The 9-cent reduction will cost the BOCC around $180,000 to $200,000 this fiscal year, Smart said. A revenue loss the county hadn’t expected.  

Cornell said the county will need to deal with any termination clause in the Securus contract, noting that the new provider might cover the cost. Or Securus might bid on the new request for proposals and continue its service at the jail without directly charging inmates.  

Smart said the wait time until free calls in October will allow the sheriff's office to coordinate a system to handle the anticipated higher call volume.  

Meridian Behavioral Healthcare continues plans for a central receiving facility for those in a mental health crisis. Donald Savoie, president of Meridian, said the company is gathering the final funding sources before construction.  

The Florida Senate has earmarked $2.1 million for the project and the House will add a dollar amount to its budget as well. The two bodies will need to agree on an exact amount though. Alachua County has already set aside its funding, and Savoie said a meeting with Gainesville next week will hopefully secure their final financing numbers.  

Mary Alford
Courtesy of Mary Alford Mary Alford

He said soil tests and other preliminary work has begun, and Meridian plans to finish construction by June 30, 2024. 

The facility will be open for walk-ins 24/7 throughout the year, and law enforcement will also use the building to drop off Baker Act diversions and other cases that apply.  

“There is a crisis by medical definition, and then there is perceived crisis by individual definition,” Savoie said. “Both are important, and both should be addressed in a very caring way here. That's really the design of it.” 

Co-responder teams with the Gainesville Police Department and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office can transport all persons needing assistance. Savoie said the county will need to coordinate receiving and not direct patients to simply the closest medical facility, like Shands.  

Deputy Dan Maynard serves on one of the sheriff’s co-responder teams along with a Meridian Health clinician. 

“There's been an increase that I've noticed in the number of folks that we've had to take into emergency custody for their mental health, and we're having to deliver more to the ERs in the hospital,” Maynard said. 

He noted that the hospital ERs are also getting packed with other cases and said a dedicated facility for these mental health issues will allow dedicated staff to address the patients.  

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