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Bristol Virginia City Council approves joining regional jail authority
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Bristol Virginia City Council approves joining regional jail authority

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BRISTOL, Va. — Scoreboards on the walls of Virginia High’s Bearcat Den failed to reflect the tumult surrounding Tuesday’s 3-2 City Council vote to join the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority.

The split vote followed more than 30 minutes of discussion before Councilman Kevin Wingard made the motion to join the authority, citing the city’s financial condition and the challenges the old, overcrowded city jail presents. Mayor Anthony Farnum and Councilman Bill Hartley joined in voting for the move, while Vice Mayor Neal Osborne and Councilwoman Becky Nave voted no.

“This is the best option for this community,” Wingard said after making the motion.

He said the cost of operating or replacing the jail is too much.

“We’ve looked at every avenue and this is a tough one,” Wingard said. “This is costing a lot of money in this little city where 52% of our population receives some type of benefit from social services. We’ve got to do something. We can no longer afford to keep doing business the way we’ve been doing business.”

Farnum, who listened intently during the discussion, called it a “tough” decision.

“This was a very difficult issue and something the city has been looking at for a long time,” Farnum said. “Trying to figure out what is best, going forward, both short term and long term. We heard a lot of opinions tonight but a majority of us believe this is best for the city long-term.”

The mayor also said the financial side was a “big” factor when the cost estimates to build a new jail are well beyond the city’s financial capability.

Building a new jail in Virginia currently costs about $200,000 per inmate, City Manager Randy Eads said, so a 400-inmate facility would cost about $80 million. The city doesn’t have the fiscal capacity to borrow anywhere near that much money.

“It’s difficult to find the money just to build a new school,” Farnum said. “I think one factor is, as a city, do we want to be in the business of building jails or building schools?”

On the opposing side, Osborne expressed concern about how the change would affect the families of those incarcerated.

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“I made a commitment three years ago to support public safety jobs — police, fire and sheriff’s department — and I held to that commitment. I think once you lose a city jail you don’t get it back,” Osborne said. “I do have a concern about the families of inmates. This is somebody’s mom or dad, somebody’s son or daughter. It will make it much harder to go to the regional jail to see them and you don’t have a local face to hold accountable for the well-being of your inmates.”

Nave, who also appeared to be listening intently, said she has concerns.

“I’m concerned about the jobs for the current officers and there are some uncertainties in that resolution that concern me. I listened to all of them tonight. I’ve toured the jail and I know the jail is in desperate need for repairs but I have to look out for the citizens and the deputies that are working that jail,” she said.

One key to the approval is a tentative agreement between the city and authority that would assure any current jail employee could interview and join the regional staff, Councilman Hartley said.

Asked about a specific number of deputies that would continue working at the courthouse, Eads said that is to be determined between the city and the Virginia Compensation Board, which funds those positions.

Tuesday’s vote will still require a series of reviews and approvals — by the jail authority, all of its member localities and the Virginia Resources Authority — before the city can proceed.

All are expected to be completed by December, Eads said, which means local prisoners could potentially begin relocating to the Abingdon facility in January.

A final cost hasn’t been determined, but the city expects to pay between $3 million and $4 million annually to belong to the authority, house its prisoners there and help pay part of the authority’s long-term bond debt, Eads said.

City officials previously considered joining the regional system three different times in the past but opted not to.

Hartley said if previous councils had taken steps to expand the city jail 20 years ago — the first time it rejected joining the regional system — the city wouldn’t be in its current predicament.

The regional authority currently houses about 1,825 inmates at jails in Abingdon, Duffield, Haysi and Richlands. The authority is comprised of Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wise counties and the city of Norton.

Bristol currently pays rent to house a number of city inmates in the Abingdon facility. It is expected to send about 200 inmates to the system, if approved. The city jail typically houses 140 to 160 per day but the city spends about $1 million per year to house up to 100 additional inmates at other jails across the state.

The jail authority board is expected to meet later this month to review Bristol’s request to join the authority. It must then be approved by each of the governing bodies of the authority’s member localities and the Virginia Resources Authority.

Tuesday’s meeting was moved to the high school to accommodate a larger crowd than City Hall — given current COVID restrictions — but shifted from the auditorium to the gym due to electrical issues.

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC

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