Paying For The Jail

Published 4:39 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2013

FARMVILLE – After twenty years of a “free ride”, area counties are finally starting to pay to house their prisoners and the transition has been a little bumpy.

The jail board, made up of representatives from each of the six counties that founded Piedmont Regional Jail, is trying to ease the transition by standardizing the jail's method of billing.

During a jail board meeting on Wednesday, May 1, the board voted unanimously to use the previous quarter's percentage of usage to calculate the locality's payments for the upcoming quarter.

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The transition to bills has been a struggle, for both the counties and the jail.

According to jail board minutes, $100,000 was taken from a money market account in March to help cover payroll. From the counties' perspective, the amount billed localities over the past few months has fluctuated greatly.

And now, thanks to the input of county administrators, the jail board is stabilizing its billing methodology.

The goal of the new plan is to give the jail a cushion to pay bills as they arrive, while also giving counties some consistency as far as their expected contribution.

Superintendent of Piedmont Regional Jail Ernest L. Toney is thankful for the plan adopted by the board. He pointed out that counties know they need to pay. “The biggest thing that everyone wanted…was a consistent way of billing that everybody understood…” Toney said.

The new billing plan approved by the board requires the jail to project its need for the upcoming quarter. Localities will pay their share of the jail's projected need as calculated by the previous quarter's percentage of inmate days.

The plan allows the accounting to be “trued up” every quarter, after the jail analyzes how much was actually spent, what funding may be remaining and the projected need for the coming quarter, Cumberland County Administrator and Attorney Vivian Giles pointed out during the meeting.

Giles worked with the jail and other county administrators to help craft a billing solution that worked for everyone, while also adhering to the original agreement made between the counties when the jail was first established.

She explained that up until now, the jail had simply been billing the counties based on the monthly shortfall. Wildly varying bills have caused a large amount of stress for some counties, such as Cumberland, for which Giles works.

Giles took the lead during the discussion of the new proposed plan, offering financial data collected with the aid of jail administration.

After the meeting, Toney stated that he was pleased with the decision the board made and thankful for the help of Giles, who he said had worked with the jail for several weeks in preparation of the meeting.

The Bill

Amelia, Buckingham, Cumberland, Lunenburg, Nottoway and Prince Edward counties have enjoyed what Toney calls a “free ride” for the last 24 years.

Meanwhile, on average, other localities have had to pay well over 40 percent of the expenses for their jail systems, according to yearly Jail Cost Reports issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia Compensation Board.

The need for localities to actually help pay for the jail is not an issue of jail expenditures increasing, Toney points out.

In fact, Piedmont Regional Jail is one of the least expensive jails in the state, per inmate day, according to the Compensation Board's Jail Cost Reports. In the past years, it has consistently been one of the, if not the least expensive of all jails located in the state.

Jail costs per inmate day ranged from about $40 to over $230 in the state during 2011, according to the Compensation Board, and the average share for localities was 52.4 percent. On average, localities paid $72.48 per inmate day. By contrast, the six counties' share for Piedmont Regional Jail that year was 1.25 percent, or 67 cents per inmate day.

Based on the new billing methodology, the six counties will be paying about $18.60 per inmate day to house their prisoners during the final quarter of this year.

So, if the jail is so cheap, why the sudden expense? The jail's recent financial strain is due to a decrease in revenue, Toney says.

In the past, the jail's revenue was primarily from housing inmates for neighboring localities and the state and the federal government, covering the costs so the founding counties could house their own prisoners for free.

But, those numbers have changed. And the bill is finally coming due.

A decrease in the state's payment rate and the construction of a new regional jail facility have contributed to cut the jail's revenue stream by two million dollars, Toney says.

In the past, the jail had received $28 for state prisoners. Now, Toney points out, it only receives $12, cutting the funding by one million dollars.

Also, the jail had been receiving prisoners from two localities, Dinwiddie and Mecklenburg, that became part of another regional jail system and will no longer house their inmates at Piedmont. There goes the other million dollars, according to Toney.

The jail's funding has also decreased due to a loss of federal prisoners. Toney is expectant that the number of federal prisoners will increase once negotiations are finalized with the Department of Justice regarding an investigation into the jail's medical practices.

The Details

Working with figures provided to her by the jail, Giles projected the expected short fall for the remainder of the current fiscal year to be just over half a million dollars.

According to a document prepared by Giles, which was based on the jail's upcoming actual need, and the new percentage amounts calculated by the jail since the meeting, the expected bill for the last quarter of the fiscal year for counties will range from a high of $187,000 for Prince Edward County, whose percentage is 37.42, to a low of $39,000 for Cumberland, whose percentage is 7.9. (See accompanying table.)

Wade Bartlett, Prince Edward County administrator, pointed out that the expected cost for the localities will likely be around $2 million dollars for the upcoming fiscal year, “which is right in the ballpark of what everybody's been saying. So, there's no real surprises on it.”

The jail board hopes to approve a budget for the upcoming year during the next month.