BRISTOL, Va. — With its prisoner population soaring, Bristol Virginia leaders received some staggering information Tuesday on the cost to replace its aging, overcrowded jail versus joining the Southwest Regional Jail Authority.
The city is currently responsible for between 270 and 280 inmates with a 51-year-old jail certified for 67 prisoners and with a relative capacity of about 150, according to the study presented by Davenport and Co., the city’s long-time financial advisers. The three-month study projected the costs of a new jail versus closing the jail and joining the regional authority, with both forecast to add more than $2 million annually to the city’s operating budget.
City officials previously rejected calls to join the regional authority — citing convenience of a local facility for courts and families versus the expense of belonging to the authority. But its prisoner population has never been this high.
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The city is currently forced to rent bed space for about 120 prisoners at three Southwest Regional facilities, the New River Jail Authority and as far away as Virginia’s eastern shore, Davenport’s Senior Vice President Roland Kooch said.
The city spent $800,000 to house prisoners at external facilities four years ago, the study shows. Through concentrated efforts that figure shrank to about $491,000 the following year before nearly doubling to $955,000 in fiscal 2019-20. This year, the city expects to spend $1 million to house prisoners elsewhere and that cost is forecast to reach $1.2 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
“If the city were to pursue a local alternative, it would need to construct a new jail with estimated net costs of $51.3 million on the low end and $91.2 million on the high end,” Kooch said.
Those figures are based on a minimum capacity of 270 prisoners up to 480 prisoners, with construction costs estimated at $200,000 per cell, Kooch said.
At 3.5% interest, borrowing $50 million to $90 million could theoretically increase the city’s annual debt service between $2.8 million and $4.9 million. But with $107 million in existing general obligation bond debt already on its books, the city in unable to borrow anything close to that, Kooch said.
He added that there is an alternative funding option called “subject to appropriation bonds,” but such moral obligation borrowing would conflict with city financial policies.
Closing the city jail and joining the regional authority wouldn’t be free.
Such a move would require about $2.2 million annually in new city revenues compared to the proposed fiscal 2021-22 city budget.
The estimated annual cost to join the authority and house its prisoners there would be about $3.8 million, Kooch said. While the sheriff’s current budget would be reduced significantly — from about $3 million to just under $1 million — the change would necessitate an estimated $500,000 in additional prisoner transportation costs.
In either case, the state reimburses 25% of eligible costs.
The study didn’t include a specific recommendation.
“I think council needs some time to digest this,” City Manager Eads said. “At some point, council is going to have to make a decision on which way we need to go in the future. This is not a fiscal year 2022 budget issue. This is a long-term issue for the city of Bristol that has to be looked at and has to be resolved.”
Mayor Bill Hartley said the council will review the information.
“We’ll have to sit down and look at longer term at where we’re going and what the options are and what we might do to move to one of those alternatives,” Hartley said after the meeting. “The issue perennially comes up, especially during budget discussions, but throughout the year — the cost of additional inmates and outside housing. So how do we deal with that longer term and what can we do to start toward a good long-term solution?”
Sheriff David Maples said the study contained a lot of information but no surprises.
“I think we need to look at every option we have before we make a decision because it’s going to impact the citizens of Bristol, Virginia,” Maples said. “If they choose the regional jail, once the [city] jail is gone, it’s gone. I just want to do what’s right for the city and its citizens.”
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