Regional jail facing budget woes

Published 9:02 am Friday, January 29, 2010

SUFFOLK—It may soon be much more expensive for Franklin, Isle of Wight County and Suffolk to house inmates at the Western Tidewater Regional Jail.

In the past, the jail has largely been funded by housing federal prisoners, however, “the availability of federal prisoners for housing has diminished greatly over the past several months resulting in an estimated loss of approximately $1 million in federal revenue,” according to Jail Superintendent David Simons.

Simons also said state reductions will cost the jail an estimated $452,207 this fiscal year and $819,895 next fiscal year.

“The cost of housing inmates is a local responsibility,” Simons said. “Up to this point, Franklin, Isle of Wight and Suffolk have enjoyed the benefits of federal inmates covering the costs.”

Suffolk, Isle of Wight County and Franklin are billed based on the approximate percentage of the inmate population each jurisdiction accounts for. Suffolk accounts for about 70 percent of the inmate population, while Franklin and Isle of Wight account for about 15 percent each.

In 2008, the three localities paid a combined total of $364,506 for the jail. By fiscal year 2011, the localities could collectively be responsible for more than $2.8 million in costs to run the jail.

Franklin City Manager June Fleming said the increases “may or may not be passed” by the jail authority’s board of directors at its February meeting.

If the increases are approved, Franklin could owe around $90,000 on top of the more than $65,000 already budgeted for the current fiscal year, according to jail records.

“I have no idea where that will come from,” Fleming told the City Council Monday night.

As of 2008, less than 10 percent of the jail’s expenses came from local funding, much less than the state average of 45 percent. The communities don’t have much of a choice other than to swallow the expected increase.

“Jails are an essential government function,” Simons said. “Our costs are directly proportional to the amount of public safety a community wants.”

Simons also said that the Western Tidewater Regional Jail has the lowest operating costs per inmate day in the region.

“I think this jail is very lean,” he said.

Franklin City Councilman Benny Burgess, an outgoing member of the jail authority board, said the city has been paying “an usually low cost per inmate” of just over $2 a day per inmate.

“Because we have kept that low, we’re now at a point of reckoning as far as having to come up with funding because the state keeps cutting us.”

For several years, the jail was bringing in enough money to cover its expenses, and before that, the jail was bringing in so much money that it was able to make payments to the localities.

“Where we should have been putting money into a reserve, we were refunding it back to the locality,” Burgess said.

Simons said the localities received payments because the jail authority board decided that was the way they wanted to use the excess revenue.

“I know of no other jail in the commonwealth that can do that now,” he said.