Sen. JD Alexander said Thursday that the forced resignation of Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss on Wednesday was warranted. He told reporters after meeting with Gov. Rick Scott that he doubted the department's claim that the privitization effort could "cripple the agency" because of a potential $25 million owed to staff for comp time, vacation pay and sick leave if they lose their jobs.
"Whether or not that number ever comes to pass is questionable,'' said Alexander, the Senate budget chief who allowed the private prison plan to be quietly inserted into the budget without debate in the final days of the session. "I support the governor's change in the secretary.''
Legislators tucked into the budget the requirement that all 12 major prisons in the Department of Corrections Region IV be run by private companies. The region encompasses an 18-county area from Ocala southward, and includes about 3800 employees.
For example, the legislature asked him to prepare a business plan to implement the privatization goal and he produced a four-page report that Alexander considered "wholly inadequte."
Alexander, the Senate budget chief, also dismissed the department's cost estimates of the cost of laying off staff because of accumulated vacation, sick leave and other costs. The issue first came to light in an email change between the governor's budget office and Buss' top deputy, Dan Ronay.
After news about the email broke, Scott told the Times-Union's Matt Dixon that "we are not going to outsource if we don't save money," he said. "You are never going to find out what the opportunity is if you don't explore it. That's what we are doing now."
Alexander said the issue is a phantom anyway. "I'd don't believe there would be $25 million worth of costs,'' he said. "They are going to be paid out one way or another, it’s just a question of when." But he said the costs could be easily managed if the state moves ahead with privatization. "Out of a budget of $1.3 billion in salaries for the Department of Corrections, quite frankly you could trim overtime and pretty easily handle $25 million.''
Alexander said Scott told him that “he didn’t feel like he had the leader we needed and he needed someone who was committed to very accountable contracting practices and see these things when we do them are well done.”
Alexander said he did not speak to the governor about removing Buss before the news surfaced Wednesday. He said there should be no reason to stop the project now. "I think it’s a very good idea and one that both the public and private side would be better."
Alexander, R-Frostproof, sought the meeting with the governor to continue to sell him on his pitch to build a 12th university in Lakeland. He said Buss also deserved removal because of the way he handled a health care prison contract. Buss should not have allowed the contract to be written to include a requirement that vendors be accredited by the American Correctional Association, whose director, James Gondles, is the husband of Betty Gondles, the consultant Buss hired to prepare the contract, Alexander said.