Feds cause jail-funds scramble

Published 11:07 pm Thursday, August 22, 2013

City leaders are preparing to scrape together about $1.2 million to cover a shortfall in the Western Tidewater Regional Jail’s budget for the rest of the year.

The cause of the funding gap? The federal government notified the jail last week it would pull most of its prisoners from the jail effective Oct. 1.

Reimbursements for keeping the prisoners represent a major funding source for the jail. It will lose about $2.7 million — nearly 20 percent of its budget — annually, WTRJ Superintendent William C. Smith said Thursday.

Newsletter

Email newsletter signup

The move is a financial decision by the federal government, Smith said. Virginia Beach made an unsolicited proposal to the U.S. Marshals Service, and other jurisdictions were given no chance to respond, Smith said.

“They believed that by using Virginia Beach, they could save some money,” Smith said. “According to them, they didn’t have to ask us if we wanted to make a counteroffer.”

Because Virginia Beach won’t be able to hold all the inmates, the Western Tidewater Regional Jail still will have around 50 or fewer, Smith said. That represents a loss of about 100.

Of course, fewer inmates will mean less expense for things like food. But there still are fixed costs that don’t change with the number of inmates, Smith said.

“Jails are a really lean organization,” he said. “The majority of it is made up of personnel expenses, then maintenance expenses, then food service. There’s not a whole lot to cut.”

A meeting of the jail board has been called for Wednesday to determine next steps.

“I couldn’t tell you what we’re looking at,” he said. “The board hasn’t taken any actions yet, but I’m sure we’re freezing hiring. Our capital improvement projects may be placed on hold. We’ve got to take an in-depth, hard look at this to figure out how we’re going to make up some of that lost revenue.”

Because the change won’t happen until Oct. 1, the hit to this year’s jail budget will be slightly less than the $2.7 million annual loss. Suffolk’s two-thirds share for this year is even less than that — about $1.2 million. Franklin and Isle of Wight County, which also participate in the jail, share the final third.

Other area jails, like Chesapeake and Norfolk, also are struggling with the loss of their prisoners, Smith said. The sheriff’s association was set to meet “to see what we can do to prevent this,” Smith said.

Suffolk Finance Director Anne Seward said she does not yet know where to find the extra money.

“We are working numbers to see what kind of expenditure savings we can pull together,” she said. “There’s just not a lot of options.”

Seward said legislative representatives had been contacted to see if anything could be done on a state level.

“There doesn’t appear to be a good rationale for why it was done, and certainly the timing is the most disappointing factor,” she said. “Right now we’re looking at all options.”

Councilman Charles Parr, the chairman of the jail board, said he hopes to cut costs internally to save enough money to cover the shortfall.

“This is almost like you have a tornado, but this might be a permanent problem,” he said.