Fewer Jail Inmates Equal Greater Cost To Counties
Published 5:26 pm Tuesday, February 19, 2013
CUMBERLAND – Inmate numbers are going down at Piedmont Regional Jail and the counties are starting to pay.
In the past, Cumberland received invoices from Piedmont Regional Jail, but the amount had been reimbursed, resulting in no net cost to the County, according to County Administrator and Attorney Vivian Giles. Now there is a net cost.
The County is now receiving monthly invoices based on the Counties percentage of usage of the facility. In addition, three invoices were sent to the County to cover “past due” bills which the jail owed and needed to pay, according to Superintendent Ernest L. Toney.
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According to Toney, the county administrators and jail board decided to break the payment of the “past due” bills into three months, instead of one lump payment. Each County was invoiced to pay the past due amount according to their percentage of usage of the jail.
Cumberland pays the least of the six counties that own the regional jail, according to Toney.
He also points out that the jail isn't even charging what they should be per inmate-day. They could charge the localities as much as $32 a prisoner a day, but the monthly bills have been less than half that amount, according to Toney.
When asked what has caused the need to bill localities, Toney is quick to point out that they have been getting a free ride for over 24 years.
Toney believes what has become bothersome to the board of supervisors is, “we have been out of sight, out of mind.”
According to the original contract between the six counties and State Code, it is the counties' responsibility to pay for the jail, Toney points out. He says counties are just as responsible for the jail, as they are for their sheriff's departments, schools and county employees.
The County's responsibility to the jail is something that has been reiterated by Supervisor Parker Wheeler, the board's delegate on the jail board.
So, why do they have to start paying now? Toney says that it wasn't that one or two things caused trouble, “Four or five different issues have impacted us and they have impacted us strongly.”
Toney points to the loss of illegal immigrants due to the new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility (ICE) in Farmville, state cuts, a decrease in federal prisoners and the loss of two contracts to another regional jail.
So far, the board of supervisors has appropriated $11,477.23 to cover two November bills. According to Giles, two December bills from the jail were also paid by the County, although they never came before the board for appropriation.
Finally, two January bills totaling $11,001.13 came before the board during their regular February meeting, which the board chose not to pay or appropriate for, instead tabling them to be re-approached after reviewing the current year's budget.
In fact, the localities' share of total expenditures for Piedmont Regional Jail is historically one of the lowest in the state according to the Compensation Board's Jail Cost Reports over the last four years.
Toney says that besides paying 2.25 million dollars to help build the juvenile detention center, the jail has also given $300,000 back to each county out of its reserve account.
He also points to the work the community work force has done for the participating counties.
“We saved Cumberland, I know, close to a $100,000 over the last several years,” Toney said, referencing help with landscaping and painting around such areas as the courthouse.
“I have told our board members for the past four years that the revenue model of Piedmont Regional Jail is a flawed model. It is only good when we have bountiful inmates,” Toney told The Herald.
He continued, “The only reason they haven't paid much sooner is because we have been proactive, we've been going out and constantly seeking revenue-making inmates.”
At its height, the jail regularly held around 740 inmates, according to Toney.
Right now, the jail has about 485 inmates.
Asked if the decline in numbers of inmates was related to the new ICE facility also located in Farmville, Toney replied, “We had 328 illegal immigrants. Now we don't have them.” He said that the year that happened, 2009, the jail lost five million dollars in revenue.
Toney says the jail was able to replace those inmates in six months because “we were on the road probably everyday,” giving presentations on the jail and seeking new contracts. “We actually were able to avert a major financial catastrophe by getting those inmates to replace those illegal immigrants,” he concluded.
He also pointed out that for the past four years the state has cut their budget and reduced the amount paid for inmates for which the state is responsible.
Any inmate charged with a felony, according to Toney, becomes the responsibility of the state. Four years ago, the state would have been paid $28 a day for these inmates. However, that was cut by over half to $12. “Now, if I was still getting $28 from the state…we wouldn't be asking the counties for money.”
He points to recent changes in the federal system which effects how many federal prisoners are available. For example, any person caught with drugs and a weapon was immediately considered a federal inmate before, says Toney. Now, he says policies have changed, and unless someone has committed a violent crime, they aren't as readily sent to jail.
Toney says the final straw was that the jail lost its inmates from Dinwiddie and Mecklenburg last summer, which equaled the loss of a million dollars in revenue. They joined Meherrin River Regional Jail, which recently built a new satellite facility.
Between the four years of state cuts, losing illegal immigrants and loss of Dinwiddie and Mecklenberg, “there couldn't have been a more perfect storm,” Toney said.
From Vermont to Florida, Toney says he has gone out to seek contracts for the jail. And he considers this to be beyond the call of duty. “It's not my responsibility to raise money to make sure the counties don't pay…We took that responsibility on and it's worked and it has been a benefit. And it's kind of frustrating that now in times that we're dealing with issues that are out of our control, the county gets hammered every time we ask for what is rightfully due to the jail. Especially after $4,000,000 of our reserve, that we raised was given to the county.”
When asked if he would like to comment on the perception that recent missteps, which are in the jail's control, have affected the number of inmates and the availability of new contracts, Toney was willing to talk.
He said they have had an impact, but not as great as people think and not as great as the other factors he has mentioned.
He believes the biggest issue was caused by two deaths which occurred in 2008 and 2009. Following claims filed by the inmate's families, Toney says the Department of Justice did a review and had issue with “the way we did our medical staff. Once you have a Department of Justice inquiry, naturally, that, that didn't help us.”
Toney reported that the jail is currently in negotiation with the Department of Justice regarding the inquiry, “to remedy any issues that they have. We are working with them. They are working with us.”
He says that once those negotiations are resolved, “yes, I think our numbers will go up. I don't they will drastically go up, but they will go up.”
In discussing the “accidental” release of a prisoner, Toney first pointed out that the jail has had over 86,000 intakes since the jail opened. The inadvertent release of an inmate was definitely due to human error, Toney says.
“The timing of this mistake was not helpful at all, because we were in negotiations with the state of Florida and Georgia to house 90 of their federal inmates… when that happened, those negotiations ceased… Nothing was signed, but I felt strong that we could probably have gotten those inmates if this hadn't happened.”
But Toney wanted to reiterate that the issues such as loss of federal prisoners, illegal immigrants and state cuts “are far more pressing than anything happening with the feds that we're going through.”
By cutting costs, renegotiating contracts and reducing staff, “we've been able to last this long,” Toney said.
Personnel are the biggest portion of the jail's operating expenses according to Toney, and he says the year before last almost twenty positions were cut.
At its peak, Toney reports the jail employed 151 people. It currently employs 123 people. “I can't cut anymore staff,” Toney said to The Herald, “I just can't, because it becomes a safety issue.”
According to Toney, the jail has also worked to reduce the cost of benefits. Now, employees pay 20 percent of their insurance. The jail has also hired part-time employees, instead of full-time employees, to reduce the cost of benefits.
The jail has also cut costs by renegotiating with their food vendors, according to Toney, as well as purchasing food from the Department of Corrections at a reduced price.
At one time, there was a procurement person that could authorize purchases, but Toney says that he is now solely responsible for expenditures, insuring there are purchase orders and justifications in place before a check is written.
Pointing to the jail's low operating cost in proportion to inmate population, Toney points out, “We are consistently the lowest in the state of Virginia of jails…That is a bragging right that we relish.”
Toney says the jail is currently in negotiations with another county, which would “drastically reduce the amount that's needed from the other jurisdictions.”
The jail has also partnered with Western Tidewater Regional Jail and Senator Harry B. Blevins, Republican, 14th District, to introduce legislation that could give the two jails a partial exemption equaling about $766,000 between them, since state funds are not being used to support housing federal inmates. Currently, for every federal inmate that is housed at Piedmont Regional Jail, the state charges the jail $8.90 per day, according to Toney.