Development commission, FDC clash over Holmes Work Camp

BONIFAY – The Holmes County Development Commission (HCDC) is poised to file a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) in an effort to force the agency to comply with a reverter clause that calls for ownership of the Holmes Work Camp to return to HCDC.

FDC purchased the 40-acre property from HCDC for $10 in 1991 with a caveat that FDC was to employ 35 persons “at all times.”

The now-shuttered work camp became one of many across the state in early 2021 to be consolidated into a main institution when a large number of FDC’s major institutions were at or below critical staffing levels. At the time Holmes Work Camp operations were suspended, FDC officials told the Times-Advertiser there simply wasn’t staff to safely run every facility and that they were hopeful the facility would eventually re-open.

A year later, the HCDC says it is ready to put the facility to better use and wants the state to honor the reverter clause.

“Our county could house inmates from other locations and see a financial boost there,” said HCDC Executive Director Joe Rone. “The going rate to house inmates for other jails that are at capacity is about $52 per inmate, per day. This could serve as an expansion for our jail, too.” 

FDOC argues the reverter clause should not take effect, reiterating the camp’s closing is only “temporary.”

“We have historically enjoyed being a part of the Holmes County community and are surprised by Holmes County’s abrupt decision to eliminate a valuable FDC asset at a time when FDC is successfully ascending from a critical staffing emergency,” wrote FDOC Executive Senior Attorney Gretchen Kelley Brantley in an April 15 letter to the Division of State Lands. Brantley went on to say that FDC experienced a critical staffing shortage as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic that compelled FDC leadership to employ “unparalleled statewide strategies” to maintain the safety of staff and inmates. Those strategies, Brantley said, included “temporarily suspending operations of some assets and that it was never the agency’s intention to close locations permanently. Brantley further stated she did not believe the reverter should be activated since no time is fixed for the revision to take place.

Ben Armstrong, attorney for HCDC, disagrees.

“Per my review of the email, letter, lease and case opinions for the cases referenced in the letter from counsel for the Department, it is still my opinion that the reverter was triggered when the facility failed to employ 35 persons,” Armstrong advised HCDC board members in an April 18 email. “ … My opinion is that the language of the original deed from HCDC to the Florida Trust Fund clearly stated that 35 persons must be employed ‘at all time.’  The clear reading of this language is that at any moment in which 35 persons were not employed the reverter would be triggered.  It is my understanding and interpretation from the wording of the deed that the intent of the HCDC at the time of the deed was to guarantee at least 35 jobs in Holmes County, and the Florida Trust Fund failed to uphold this requirement on the first day that operations closed.”

FDC Secretary Ricky D. Dixon is expected to be in Holmes County on Thursday to meet with HCDC board members and other county officials regarding the issue. Rone and HCDC Chairman Jeremy Rolling say while they are open to communications with the Secretary, they are still prepared to file suit in Circuit Court to enforce the reverter.

“We will see how Thursday goes before taking any action, but it is our opinion that the property should be returned to HCDC ownership,” said Rolling. Rolling went on to say he had a phone discussion with FDC Assistant Deputy Secretary Richard Comerford last week in which Comerford inferred FDC would likely close the Holmes County Correction Institution Main Unit should the agency lose control of the work camp. 

“He said if they lost the work camp, it would make it ‘less attractive’ for FDC to keep the prison open,” said Rolling. “It seemed like a thinly veiled threat about what is one of our largest employers, but we will see how Thursday’s meeting goes.”

HCDC also donated 160 to FDC in the late 1980s to help establish the Holmes CI Main Unit; however, there is no reverter clause associated with that property.

As Florida’s largest state agency, and the third largest state prison system in the country, FDC reports it employs 24,000 members, incarcerates 80,000 inmates and supervises nearly 146,000 offenders.

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