WISE, Va. — The Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority board unanimously approved a city of Bristol, Virginia request to join its ranks Tuesday, but additional approvals still lie ahead.
Meeting at the Inn at Wise, the board’s 24-0 vote followed more than a half-hour of discussion.
The request must now be approved by each of the authority’s 10 member jurisdictions and the Virginia Resources Authority, which manages the jail authority’s long-term bond debt. The VRA meets in December, and one additional approval from the Bristol Virginia City Council is required.
A 3-2 City Council vote last week sought admission to the authority. The city intends to close its aging, overcrowded jail and house prisoners at the regional facilities rather than paying $1 million annually to house overflow prisoners elsewhere.
“I know each and every one of you had concerns for your own county. Personally, I think this will be a good thing that will happen between us and Bristol and be a win-win for everybody. I appreciate all of your support for this,” authority Chairman Phillip McCall, a member of the Washington County Board of Supervisors, said following the vote.
Asked afterward, McCall said the regional system has solved a major problem for rural localities in this part of the state.
“The regional jail is a good deal for Southwest Virginia. It gives us all an opportunity to come together under one entity instead of individual jails. We can’t afford individual jails down here. We’ve got to work together,” McCall said.
Contacted after the vote, City Manager Randy Eads said he appreciates the support.
“I’m happy our soon-to-be partners in the regional jail recognize the predicament the city of Bristol Virginia is in with our current jail. We’re pleased to be able to partner with the regional jail system and become part of that team,” Eads said.
The authority approved an amended service agreement and a support agreement. Terms spell out that the city will be responsible for all legal and financial fees to facilitate the agreement. The city will purchase two vans to transport inmates between the Abingdon jail and Bristol courthouse. For its role in helping fund debt service, the city will be billed based on its actual number of inmates or 200 — whichever is greater. The city also agreed to pay a premium of $200,750 per year for 10 years — based on 200 inmates — that will be shared by the 10 existing member localities.
The authority will lose part of the approximately $570,000 Bristol would have paid this fiscal year to house part of its excess prisoners in the Abingdon regional jail.
The 200-prisoner figure is about the “break-even point” for the other member localities, authority Superintendent Steve Clear said.
Tazewell County, which built its own jail before deciding to join the authority, also paid a per diem payment for 10 years and allowed the authority to assume control of its jail, according to the agreement.
The authority agrees to interview, with the intent to hire, all current city jail employees that don’t remain with the department because the jail closes, according to the agreement.
The city currently has about 50 sworn officers and about 10 vacancies, Clear said.
The state Compensation Board will have the final say in how many new positions would be added to the regional jail and how many officers would remain in Bristol to manage courthouse security, holding prisoners for court and serving legal process, Clear said.
“When we started the negotiations, we added positions, so we’ve got positions plus vacancies,” Clear said.
Board member Josh Evans, a member of the Dickenson County Board of Supervisors, asked a series of questions about the agreement before ultimately making the motion to approve the city’s request.
“My concern was that Dickenson County and all the other counties had been paying debt service and used our taxpayer money to build those facilities. We didn’t want somebody to just come in free and easy,” Evans said after the meeting. “We believe the resolution, with them paying a minimum 200- inmate headcount and a premium of $2.75 per inmate is fair to small localities like Dickenson that spent money to build the jails. And it’s also fair to the city of Bristol and being neighborly.”
One of the concerns discussed was losing the revenue accompanying federal inmates that would be displaced by city prisoners.
“It’s a tease,” Tazewell County representative Charles Stacy, a member of that county’s board of supervisors, said. “The commonwealth of Virginia gives us $30 a day and the federal government $75. With federal inmates come all the federal requirements. I think what we lose in the federal dollars, we’ll make up for in increased participation from a large entity like Bristol. They’re primed for growth, and, if that happens, they’ll have an increase in some of their jail rates as well.”
During the discussion, Stacy wanted to make sure Bristol wasn’t planning to outsource its local prisoners but keep its jail open to house federal inmates. However, Clear said the agreement doesn’t allow the city to hold prisoners overnight and upgrading its facilities to federal standards would be too costly. The city can only have temporary holding facilities for inmates brought in for court.
Afterward, Stacy called this a good opportunity.
“I think it will have its bumps; everything does. Tazewell was kind of late coming to the game, and, in hindsight, we look back and realize we should have come in the very beginning. Bristol is probably in a very similar situation,” Stacy said. “The cost of operating jails is very expensive. At least with the regional jail system, you have the opportunity to spread that around multiple jurisdictions, and, if you can fine-tune it so that it’s equitable for all, it seems to work out well. I hope it will benefit all of us.”
Another question was what if Bristol “backs out again.”
“They could,” Clear said. “However, once this is all passed and if they want to leave, it’s the exact same agreement you have. Every jurisdiction has to allow them, and they (city) still owe their share of the debt payment. They have the exact same agreement with each jurisdiction,” Clear said.
On three prior occasions, the city looked at joining the jail authority but opted to continue operating its own jail because it was cheaper. Eads has cautioned that switching to the regional jail will cost the city more money annually, but said it is the best option — given the prohibitive costs of renovating or constructing a new jail that the city can’t afford because of its limited capacity to borrow money.
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