Education first in council’s legislative priorities

Published 10:28 pm Friday, November 22, 2019

Fully funding education Standards of Quality and workforce development programs, improving railroad crossing congestion and requesting an exemption to have the state reimburse the jail for all of the inmates it houses are among the Suffolk City Council’s 2020 state legislative priorities as outlined in a draft presentation at its Wednesday meeting.

Rob Catron, a partner at Alcalde and Fay, outlined the priorities, which did not deviate substantially from past years, keeping education at the top of the priority list.

“How much do we fund our schools, how do we fund, not necessarily teachers, but our other staffers, guidance counselors, all of those things,” Catron said. “During the last recession, back in 2009, a lot of that was cut, and what localities around the state, including Suffolk, are asking is for those funds to be (put back). It’s going to cost around $600 million … maybe even more.”

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The purpose behind reducing the rail grade crossing congestion is to help re-route rail traffic away from the internal part of the city.

Catron said the reason for the city to ask for the exemption for the Western Tidewater Regional Jail is because it has anywhere from 190 to 200 federal prisoners in it per day. The state penalizes many jails around the state for housing federal prisoners because the state contributed funds to building many of those jails. However, the construction of the Western Tidewater Regional Jail was done with local dollars.

Currently, the jail pays nothing for about the first 76 prisoners. However, after that, “we pay, literally, a penalty, every time we have another federal prisoner in the jail, which makes no sense, since Suffolk built the jail. We are in an effort to reduce the current penalty from the state.”

He said Suffolk loses about $135,000 per month as a result of the penalties, and that the city should not have to pay the state for housing prisoners in a jail it built.

“It’s going to be $1.3 million so far this year that the state has kept in funds that should have come to Suffolk, so that’s a huge issue for us to deal with the appropriations committees in the Senate and the House (of Delegates).”

Councilman Mike Duman proposed that the exemption stop after 76 prisoners, and then resume again when the jail reaches 131 prisoners. Duman said within the last three weeks, jail Superintendent William Smith, the jail authority’s board chairman and Duman spoke with outgoing Delegate Chris Jones, and they came up with a more palatable solution for everyone.

“What we originally had requested was an exemption to be moved from 76 to 130, so in essence the state would receive no recovery funds until we got past 130,” Duman said.

He said instead of doing that, Jones recommended that the partial exemption would stay at 76 prisoners, but the jail would remit money to the state until it reached 130 prisoners, when the jail would retain its exemptions.

“Therefore, the jail is not penalized for basically doing an exceptional job, because our regional jail has become the jail of choice for U.S. Marshals,” Duman said. “Not only are we housing federal inmates from Virginia, but recently have been housing a significant amount of inmates from the state of North Carolina.”

Duman said there are plans to speak with Delegate-elect Clinton Jenkins about the proposal.

Council also opposes any changes to the current method of real estate assessments, including a real estate tax court in Richmond.

The draft agenda also calls for broadband funding to continue.

Council members also expressed concern about securing funding to replace the Kings Highway Bridge, which closed in 2005, and called for it to be a higher priority for the city’s legislative agenda.

“This will never get traction buried in the legislative agenda where it sits,” said Councilman Roger Fawcett.

Said Mayor Linda T. Johnson: “We’re going to have to make it clear that it’s not our bottom-of-the-list project.”

Council is expected to vote on the legislative agenda at its Dec. 4 meeting. Gov. Ralph Northam presents his proposed biennial budget Dec. 17, and the 60-day legislative session begins Jan. 8.