Good news, and a warning

Published 4:11 pm Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Officials from the Western Tidewater Regional Jail have received a bit of good news following a couple of months of lobbying the U.S. government over a plan to transfer most of the federal prisoners that were being held in Suffolk to Virginia Beach.

The transfer, which was only stopped after local officials enlisted the help and support of their legislators in Washington, had been put into motion when Virginia Beach Jail officials offered an unsolicited proposal to house federal prisoners at a cheaper rate than the regional jail in Suffolk had been charging.

The transfer could have left a $2.7-million hole in the regional jail’s budget. Suffolk taxpayers would have been on the hook for most of that total, with their partners in Franklin and Isle of Wight being called to fill the rest of the gap.

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But good news came in the form of a verbal commitment by the U.S. Marshals Service to accept a counteroffer from the WTRJ board of directors, a counteroffer that came following the intercession of legislators, who convinced the marshals to put the move on hold long enough to receive competing proposals.

With the process temporarily halted, local officials offered the U.S. government the same terms that previously had given Virginia Beach the edge. The Marshals Service has verbally accepted the new offer, and local officials are waiting only for the contract paperwork to arrive so they can seal the new deal.

“Obviously that’s good news that the marshal’s service has accepted our quote, which puts us on a level playing field with Virginia Beach,” Mike Duman, a city councilman and member of the jail board, said this week. “It’s still going to be somewhat trying, but not as catastrophic as actually losing the federal inmates.”

But the whole situation should serve as a wakeup call for the jail board. With even the bloated federal budget under new scrutiny, taxpayers expect government agencies to save money wherever they can do so, and responsive federal agencies are looking for ways to get more for their money from their contractors.

Even as they sign their new agreement, officials from the WTRJ should be considering how they can cut expenses in their facility to make it leaner and more responsive to the challenging economic climate of the 2010s. And they should be working to build relationships with the Marshals Service that will help them avoid any similar surprises in the future.