BRISTOL, Va. — The weight of spending $1 million or more annually to house local prisoners elsewhere because its inmate population has overwhelmed the aging Bristol Virginia Jail is driving renewed consideration of joining the Southwest Regional Jail Authority.
On Tuesday, the Bristol Virginia City Council approved a resolution directing City Manager Randy Eads to begin negotiations with the authority, which operates lockups in Abingdon, Duffield, Haysi and Richlands. If successful and ultimately approved by council, the city’s prisoners would be moved, the city could shutter its 51-year-old jail, and many of those who work there would be out of a job.
Eads is drafting a letter to authority officials outlining the city’s position and hopes to have an initial meeting within a few days. The process could take weeks or months, Eads said last week.
The jail remains state certified for its original 67 beds. With bunk beds, the jail can accommodate about 134 prisoners, but it typically houses another 25-30 who sleep on mats on the floor. Hardly a new problem, the city first sent excess prisoners to another jail in 2007 and has continually relied on other jails since 2014.
Today’s problem is much worse than in October 2019, when the Bristol Herald Courier presented its award-winning “Critical Mass” series about seriously overcrowded local jails. In the 18 months since, city jailers have experienced a 40% increase in prisoners, from about 200 to present levels of 270 or more.
Housing prisoners is expensive
Last week, the city was responsible for 267 prisoners — 200 more than its jail is certified to hold — with 162 in house and the city paying to house 105 in other facilities.
Of those 105, 83 were in the Abingdon regional jail, 10 were in the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority and 15 more were in Eastern Shore, Sheriff’s Capt. David Collins said. The city currently pays $39 per prisoner per day at Abingdon, $35 at Blue Ridge and $37 at Eastern Shore.
For a single day, the city owes the Abingdon jail $3,237, $350 to Blue Ridge and $555 to Eastern Shore — a grand total of more than $4,100.
The city’s March bill for just the Southwest Regional Jail Authority was $110,000, and it paid another $17,000 for inmates housed at the Eastern Shore Regional Jail.
This year, the city budgeted $1 million for excess prisoner housing and Eads said that may not be enough, noting “we will be close” since less than $300,000 remains for April, May and June billing, with the fiscal year ending June 30.
The city’s proposed budget for fiscal 2021-22 includes a 20% increase in that line item, allocating $1.2 million for excess prisoner housing.
Just a year ago, in April 2020, the jail reduced its average daily population from 150 to 101 after a series of steps in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The census began rising again last summer, reached 134 in September and has increased steadily ever since. In February, the jail held an average of 167 inmates daily but had up to 180 on a single day.
“I can’t point to one thing that is causing the spike,” Eads said last week. “I think we’re seeing the court system get back on schedule [after COVID closings]. More and more people are going to court and getting sentenced for crimes they’ve committed. For a time last year, the law enforcement community across the nation was taking a different approach to policing during COVID-19. Our average arrests per day are back on par with where they were and — quite frankly — this is a problem facing all communities across the nation. Crime has increased, people are addicted to drugs and, unfortunately, it usually leads to jail.”
Of the 162 prisoners housed here Thursday, 98 were classified as pre-trial, meaning their cases haven’t yet been heard, 33 were serving a sentence and the rest hadn’t been fully sentenced. The 15 inmates in Eastern Shore have been sentenced and are waiting to be taken into state custody.
Davenport & Co. report
In response to this recent spike, the city commissioned long-time financial advisers Davenport & Co. to study the problem. Its report issued April 6 looks at the costs of building a jail versus joining the regional system.
Building a new jail to just house 270 prisoners would cost more than $51 million compared to more than $91 million to build a jail for 480 prisoners.
Based on an estimate of $200,000 per inmate bed to construct a new jail, hard costs — construction, materials and labor would run $54 million. Soft costs — a planning study, design, engineering and other associated costs — would be about $10.8 million — for a total of $64.8 million. The state would reimburse 25%, or $13.5 million, leaving the city’s net cost at $51.3 million.
Issuing that amount of 30-year general obligation bonds, with a 3.5% interest rate, would require the city to repay $2.79 million annually for 30 years, for a total of $83.7 million.
Such studies are imperfect.
A 2012 Community Based Corrections Plan by Mosely Architects forecast that the city’s jail population would reach 269 in 2027 and recommended — at that time — the city build a 270-bed jail. The current jail population exceeded that estimate six years ahead of projection.
Asked if money were no object, what size jail the city should build, Sheriff David Maples said a minimum of 400 beds, perhaps as many as 500.
The Davenport report projected the costs of a 480-prisoner jail at $115.2 million minus $24 million reimbursement from the state, or a $91.2 million cost for the city. Borrowing that amount for 30 years at 3.5% interest creates annual debt service payments of $4.96 million or paying back $148.8 million.
That doesn’t include the annual operating costs.
Using the sheriff’s budget of $3.01 million plus the $2.79 million in debt service, makes the projected annual costs $5.8 million for the 270-bed facility. Beyond the $4.96 million debt service payment for the 480-bed facility, there would be a larger sheriff’s budget to staff it and expected higher utility costs, resulting in $8.2 million annually.
All of those figures are immaterial since “at the current time the city does not have the legal debt capacity to incur upwards of $51 million to $91 million of new general obligation debt,” the report notes.
The city presently has $106 million in long-term bond debt on its books, leaving virtually no capacity for additional borrowing. The state Public Finance Act prescribes municipalities can issue bonds or other indebtedness no more than 10% of the total assessed value of all real estate within its borders.
Switching isn’t free
Joining the Southwest Virginia Jail Authority also comes with a price — one that previous city leaders have shied away from paying.
The city’s pro-rata annual cost, based on 280 inmates, is estimated at about $3.7 million, according to the Davenport report. That includes $3.06 million for housing inmates, based on a rate of $10,944 per inmate, per year or $29.98 per day. It also assumes the city would pay about $667,000 annually — again based on inmate count — to help pay off the authority’s long-term debt.
Those figures are based on what other member localities currently pay for housing and debt service, according to the report.
“We anticipate the additional local revenue needed to go to the regional jail would be about $2.18 million,” Eads said. “I think the number is reasonable. There are probably some costs we’ve estimated a little high, but there may be things we haven’t thought about that could impact the total cost.”
Eads called the report’s projections for staffing and transportation costs “very conservative.”
“I anticipate as we move through this process some of these numbers will change, to help us make up that difference,” Eads said. “I do not anticipate having to raise taxes to join the regional jail.”
Some of that money would likely come from rebounding tax revenues as the pandemic eases and anticipated savings from closing the jail.
The report also notes that a Bristol move might force the authority to borrow more money to expand its facilities.
“It is important to note that if the city were to become a member of the authority, then its regional jail facilities would be at approximate full capacity and the authority may have to potentially expand its facilities in the next five to 10 year horizon,” according to the report. “An expansion of the authority facilities would involve new debt issued by the authority and result in a sharing of the related debt service among all members, including Bristol.”
Job impacts unknown
The Sheriff’s Office currently employs 58, with the majority working in the corrections division and the majority of those salaries paid by the Virginia Compensation Board.
Eads and Maples said it’s too early to know how many total positions might be affected. If the jail closes, the state would determine how many sheriff’s positions would remain to provide court and courthouse security and perform other department functions, including serving legal paperwork.
“The number one concern for myself and council is the potential loss of jobs,” Eads said. “We’re cognizant of that and, if there’s any way possible we can transfer some of our employees to the regional jail, I hope the regional jail will consider that. And I hope the employees that would be impacted would consider that transfer as well.”
Southwest Authority background
Ten area jurisdictions pooled their resources in the early 2000s and established the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority. Original participants included Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Washington and Wise counties, plus the city of Norton. Each closed their local lockups and built three new regional jails in Abingdon, Duffield and Haysi to house their combined prisoners. Tazewell County completed its jail in 2000, but joined the regional group in 2005 after the other facilities opened.
By 2010, the authority’s facilities were overflowing. In 2012, the Virginia Department of Corrections approved a $35 million expansion from the original 900 beds to over 1,400 rated beds.
The Davenport report revealed that the authority had about 1,800 prisoners this spring.
According to the Virginia Compensation Board, the authority’s four jails housed a combined average of 2,029 prisoners daily in March, including 1,263 local inmates, 678 state inmates and 88 federal inmates, with all federal inmates in Abingdon.
“At the present time the authority does not have the additional capacity to accept all of the city’s inmates and sell extra bed space to the federal government,” according to the Davenport report, adding that city inmates would replace those federal inmates.
This marks the fourth — and perhaps final — time city leaders have given serious consideration to abandoning the existing jail and joining the authority. The first was in 2003-04, when it was formed and construction of its jail network began. The second was in 2012, when the city completed the first phase of a Community Based Corrections Plan — a state requirement before a locality can consider construction of a new jail. The third time was in 2017-18, when its total prisoner population first swelled beyond 200.
The city came closest to joining in 2012-13, when the city — which was running up millions in new debt to construct The Falls commercial center while simultaneously borrowing short-term tax anticipation notes just to meet payroll and utility expenses between real estate tax collections — negotiated with the regional authority.
In each case, City Councils at those times determined it would cost less to continue the status quo.
While recent audits show city finances are on much more solid ground today, the city’s inability to borrow may mean the regional approach offers the lone feasible solution.
“It’s complicated and no decision will be easy. I know the council will have a tough decision. We keep talking about a can but we don’t have a can, anymore, to kick. The city has got to do something,” Sheriff Maples said last week. “That’s my opinion. I certainly don’t want to lose the jail because once your jail is gone, it’s gone. I also understand where the city is at. I get it.”
Since constructing a new jail or performing a major expansion are out of financial reach, Maples suggested partially joining the regional authority while keeping some prisoners in the existing jail. However, that would likely require up to $1 million in maintenance to replace water lines, plumbing and other features deteriorating from decades of use.
“Buying a certain number of beds at the regional jail and keeping our jail open for a period of time, in theory that sounds good and it would prevent job loss here in Bristol. The problem is we’ve got a jail that’s 51 years old and it was built for 67 inmates,” Eads said.
Comparisons to Henry County
Lest anyone think those cost estimates are out of line, a new $70 million Henry County Jail is scheduled to open later this year in Martinsville, and the numbers are strikingly similar to Bristol’s.
That county’s current jail was built in 1974, had a capacity of 67 inmates and typically housed 180, forcing the county to routinely pay to house an additional 75 to 100 in other jails. It first sent prisoners elsewhere in 2013 and saw that line item expense rise from less than $13,000 to well over $300,000 over the next five years, according to the Henry County Sheriff’s Office website.
A study showed the county would need capacity for 400 inmates by 2030. The new 400-bed facility was built based on an estimated $175,000 per inmate bed when funding was approved in 2019, when the price of construction materials was considerably lower than today.
Additionally, the Virginia Department of Corrections requires that a new jail be designed based on 400 square feet per inmate, meaning that jail must be a minimum of 160,000 square feet — larger than the typical Walmart Supercenter.
The casino factor
While the city continues pinching pennies, a significant new source of funds is around the corner. The Hard Rock Resort and Casino is expected to open in late 2022 at the former Bristol Mall and forecast to ultimately generate millions each year in new tax revenues. Eads said, while it has come up, that really isn’t germane to this issue.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘when the casino comes you’ll have the money to build a jail.’ You may have the cash flow to build the jail, but the city doesn’t have the legal debt margin to build a jail,” Eads said.
“I don’t believe, when the citizens of Bristol voted for the casino, that they wanted to have a casino in order to have a new jail,” Eads said. “I think they expect us to use that money in a wise manner to lower taxes and to give them better services than what we offer now, and that’s what I plan on doing.”
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