Regional jail costs increasing

Published 7:08 pm Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Study: corrections officers are underpaid

SUFFOLK

The city of Franklin’s cost to continue using the Western Tidewater Regional Jail is projected to increase by about $73,000 come the start of fiscal year 2020-2021 in July.

According to Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham, who serves as one of the city’s representatives on the WTRJ Authority Board, Franklin’s share of the cost to operate the jail, which the city shares with the city of Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, was $948,012, or roughly 15 percent of the jail’s overall budget, in 2019. The contribution for each locality, he explained, is calculated based on that city’s or county’s average number of inmates over a three-year period.

While Franklin’s percentage of the jail’s inmate population has remained steady over the past several years, averaging 71 in 2019, operating costs are expected to rise by nearly $1 million. Specifically, according to jail Superintendent William Smith, the facility will likely need $950,000 in additional local funds, about $600,000 of which will fund salary increases for corrections officers.

Jail staff had conducted a compensation study last year, which Smith said had concluded that WTRJ officers, particularly entry-level ones, were underpaid by $4,000 to $8,000 compared to other regional jails and local police departments.

With the job market the way it is now we just can’t compete if our salaries are not where they need to be,” Smith said. “We’ve had the highest turnover this past year. A lot of that is attributed to pay.”

The jail offers entry-level corrections officers a starting salary of $32,559, which rises to around $35,821 during the first year of service. Entry-level Suffolk police officers who have yet to attend and graduate from the police academy, by comparison, earn $42,000. The city of Franklin offers an even higher starting salary, $43,180, for trainee officers. The Southampton County Sheriff’s Office currently offers around $35,000 for trainees, with the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office offering $38,710.

According to Cheatham, the WTRJ authority offset just over $400,000 of the anticipated $950,000 increase in operating expenses by agreeing to accept 20 additional federal inmates. Smith added that the authority further reduced this cost by including additional state funding in its budget, which is the result of Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed raises for regional jail officers in the General Assembly’s draft biennial 2020-2022 budget. This left about $397,000 of the original $950,000 increase to be distributed among each Western Tidewater locality.

Keep in mind that this is the first increase we have had in the jail for four years,” Cheatham said. “Increasing the federal inmates is a very risky move, as all it takes, as we have experienced, is an email to lose them to another facility. We are guaranteed 75 and we are budgeting 150.”

The jail houses, on average, more than 150 federal inmates, he added, and uses the resulting additional federal funds, after paying the state back for the overage, to fund its capital reserve for any large future expenses. This, the vice mayor explained, allows the jail to have funding on hand and not have to take on additional debt to fund repairs and improvements to the facility.

The WTRJ is one of the least expensive jails in the state, coming in at $59.78 for its operating cost per inmate per day, compared to the state average of $87.20, according to a 2018 report prepared by staff at the State Compensation Board. It is also the 10th lowest in local funding, with an average of just over 40 percent of its annual budget coming from Franklin, Suffolk and Isle of Wight tax dollars over a three-year period.

Franklin’s increase is actually the smallest of the three localities. Suffolk’s is expected to be around $195,000 and Isle of Wight County’s, just under $219,000. The reason Isle of Wight saw the largest increase, Smith explained, was because in addition to funding its share of the planned salary increases, the county also saw a 2-percent rise in its percentage of inmates housed at the facility.

We haven’t come up with the exact figure we’re going to start our entry-levels at, but it will be closer to Suffolk PD and some of the surrounding jurisdictions,” Smith said.

It isn’t just low pay that’s driving the recent turnover, he added. The jail has also seen quite a few retirements over the past few years, particularly among officers who started when the jail was constructed in 1992. WTRJ policy, Smith said, allows officers who have served at least 25 years and who are at least 50 years old to retire with full benefits.

We’re starting to see a large majority of our older staff reach those levels, then our new staff come in,” he said. “Some of those work out really well, and some, it seems, will get a better job offer.”

While some Virginia law enforcement agencies, such as Fredricksburg’s police departments, have implemented contract provisions requiring officers who receive their police academy training at department expense to stay with that department a set number of years, the WTRJ does not include such a provision in its employment contracts. Nor does the Franklin Police Department, according to department spokesman Sgt. Scott Halverson.