BRISTOL, Va. — The Bristol Virginia City Council will consider a resolution tonight to join the Southwest Regional Jail Authority, which would ultimately lead to closing the city’s old, overcrowded jail.
The council voted in April to negotiate with the authority, and the authority’s board followed suit in late July. A tentative agreement was reached in September.
If approved, the jail authority board is expected to meet later this month to review the request. It must then be approved by each of the governing bodies of the authority’s member localities and the Virginia Resources Authority because the city would become partially responsible for helping pay off the authority’s long-term bond debt.
The VRA board meets in December, and the agreement could be finalized by January.
The city’s 53-year-old jail is in disrepair and has been overcrowded for more than a decade. It is state-certified for 67 inmates, but typically houses 140-160 daily and then pays other jurisdictions to house between 50 and 100 more prisoners at facilities up to six hours away.
Established in 2000, the jail authority includes Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wise counties and the city of Norton. It presently houses about 1,825 inmates at jails in Abingdon, Duffield, Haysi and Richlands.
The city’s annual cost to belong to the authority would include its share of the operating costs based on its actual number of prisoners — or a minimum of 200 — whichever is higher, according to the preliminary agreement. Each year it belongs to the authority, the city would also pay a portion of the authority’s $69 million in long-term bond indebtedness — with amounts also based on inmate census.
In 2020, the city held an average of 201 inmates per day — down slightly from 214 in 2019 — but a 16.8% increase over its 172 average just five years ago.
For fiscal 2021-22, each member entity except Tazewell County — which built its own jail before joining the authority — pays an average $35.38 per prisoner per day. Using that rate, the city’s cost would be about $2.58 million annually for 200 prisoners or about $3.3 million annually for 250 prisoners.
Additionally, the city agreed to pay an annual premium of $200,750 directly to the authority member localities — based on $2.75 per day, per 200 inmates for 10 years — or just over $2 million — according to the agreement. Each locality would be paid based on its prisoner census.
Authority board members previously expressed concern that if Bristol has fewer prisoners than expected, it could increase their annual operational share.
If Bristol joins the authority, it would lose the rent Bristol is now paying — $570,000 for fiscal 2021-22 — plus it could lose up to $1.6 million in revenue for federal inmates should Bristol’s prisoners wind up occupying those cell spaces.
By comparison, for fiscal 2021-22, the city budgeted a net $3.1 million to operate its existing jail, including $1.2 million to house excess inmates at other jails.
By joining the authority, the city stands to save more than $2 million annually in reduced employees, jail operating expenses and jail rental costs.
Among authority members, Washington County is expected to pay the most — $4.13 million during this fiscal year. That includes $3.2 million for operating costs and $850,700 for debt service — based on an estimated 320 inmates, according to the authority’s operating budget.
Wise County is to pay $2.64 million this fiscal year, including $2.1 million for operations and over $545,000 for debt service, based on 205 inmates.
Washington’s 320 inmates represent 16% of the total facilities used while Wise represents 10%. At 200 inmates, Bristol would also occupy about 10% of the total facilities.
“What we know is building a new jail will cost the city substantially more than going to the regional jail,” City Manager Randy Eads said. “Even though the regional jail is going to cost the city more money [compared to the current operation] it will still be cheaper than building a new jail. And the city does not have the debt capacity to build a new jail facility nor will we have that debt capacity in the next 20 years.”
Building a new jail would cost the city between $50 million and $90 million, depending on size, according to an April 2021 estimate. That would necessitate 30 years of annual debt service payments ranging from $2.8 million to $4.96 million, but the city is unable to borrow that much money because it already has more than $100 million in long-term bond debt.
The resolution and a proposed “support agreement” spell out that the city’s assumption of paying some authority debt in no way commits the city’s full faith and credit or taxing power — since it lacks that borrowing capacity.
A major issue for the City Council back in April was the potential job loss for dozens of jail employees, but that appears to be resolved, according to the preliminary agreement.
“The authority will interview, with the intention of hiring, Bristol’s current jail employees that do not stay with the sheriff’s department,” according to the agreement. All employee hire dates would be transferred along with 12 weeks or less of previously accrued sick leave and one week of previously accrued vacation will be transferred.
A final number has yet to be determined, Eads said.
The city would also be responsible for paying all legal and financial costs related to joining and would agree to purchase two vans to transport inmates between Bristol and the Abingdon regional jail for court and other appointments.
The jail authority is responsible for transportation of all prisoners, under the terms of the agreement.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at the Virginia High School auditorium, 650 Long Crescent Drive.
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