BRISTOL, Va. — In a vote where the angst was palpable, Bristol Virginia City Council unanimously approved initiating negotiations that could ultimately close the city jail.
The council voted 4-0, with Councilman Kevin Mumpower absent, to authorize City Manager Randy Eads to begin negotiations with the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority. At issue is the city’s seriously overcrowded 50-year-old jail facility, jobs of corrections workers, an inability to afford to build a new jail and the ultimate destination for some 270 prisoners the city is responsible for.
“It’s been said we kicked the can down the road. I think we’ve kicked it about as far as we can,” Mayor Bill Hartley said near the end of more than 30 minutes of discussion on the issue. “It’s not an easy decision. It’s not a good decision either way, but I think we should go ahead and start the negotiations.
“I know last time this came before council — the potential of the deputies transferring to positions at the regional jail — I would hope you’ll do your best to get something there,” Hartley said directly to Eads.
The current jail is licensed to house 67 prisoners but typically holds more than twice that, through the use of bunk beds and some inmates sleeping on floors. On Tuesday, there were 160 inmates inside the jail, and 105 more city prisoners were being held at other facilities — specifically, the Abingdon regional jail and the Eastern Shore jail.
The city’s proposed fiscal 2020-21 budget includes $1.2 million to house prisoners somewhere other than in the city jail, which is an increase from $1 million in the current budget.
An April 2021 study by Davenport & Co., the city’s financial advisers, estimates it would cost between $50 million and $90 million to build a new jail, depending on capacity. The city has about $106 million in bond debt on its books and would be unable to borrow those amounts for many years.
“At this point, the city is not in a position to borrow money to build a new jail facility, and we have to do something different at this point,” Eads said in summing up his presentation to the council.
Vice Mayor Anthony Farnum, who made the motion to approve the resolution, said the city was between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.”
“I’m a big proponent of [the idea that] it’s better to own than rent. When we first started talking about this when I got on the council, I was for renovating. Then I see the price — $50 million — to build a new facility. And that’s on the low end,” Farnum said. “We don’t have the debt capacity to do that now. If we didn’t have a Falls [commercial center] or a landfill, we would have the money.”
Councilman Kevin Wingard, who rarely makes or seconds a motion, provided the second.
“We can’t do any major repairs to the jail because, if we do anything major, you’re mandated by law to bring it up to full compliance of today’s standards. To do that, you’re talking tens of millions of dollars the city don’t have,” Wingard said. “What we really need to have is a society that will obey the law, but unfortunately we don’t.”
Wingard said past city councils should have addressed this issue years ago.
“This truly has been kicked down the road because our hands are tied,” Wingard said. “We’ve had other leaders who opted to spend the money elsewhere instead of schools and jails and things the community really has to have to function properly.”
Councilman Neal Osborne, who noted he typically makes motions, said he is struggling with this decision.
“I’ve went back and forth 20 times on this,” Osborne said. “It’s been a long time coming to get us to this point, and I hate we’re at this point. … I never wanted to have to get to this point. But the condition of the jail has gone on for so long, it has to be fixed. There’s concern about [what] building a new jail would cost. I’m concerned what the regional jail might charge us. I’m concerned about the humane treatment of prisoners. … I have wrestled with this a whole bunch the past couple of weeks.”
Eads expects negotiations could take several weeks, and he hopes to bring an agreement back to the council later this spring.
“I know you all have a tough job ahead of you,” Sheriff David Maples told the council. “It will affect many people; we know that. That certainly is heavy on my heart, but I also know the conditions we’re in, and we can’t kick this can anymore. … In the end, it really affects our citizens. Whether you build a jail or go to the regional jail, it’s expensive to keep people in jail — that’s the bottom line.”
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