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Funding for Jail in Limbo

Jail plans don't have state approval, corrections officials say.

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A day after City Council approved plans for a new jail, the Virginia Department of Corrections says the plan will have to come to the state for approval. At issue: a lower bed count that could lead to construction delays and the loss of jail staff.

The new wrinkle could delay the city’s construction timeline. At issue is the state’s preliminary commitment to provide 25 percent of the funding for the project.

The Virginia Board of Corrections (and later, the General Assembly) approved the city’s original plan in October 2009. But those plans were for a jail renovation, not an entirely new facility. Even if the new plans are approved by the corrections board this fall, the project would have to again go before state lawmakers before the city could receive state funding. The General Assembly’s 2012 session begins in January; the city wants to start building the jail in December.

The jail plans that the state approved two years ago, says Brooks Ballard, program coordinator of architectural and engineering services for the Department of Corrections, “consisted of a five-story building and a major renovation of the existing building and a small addition. The whole project has changed.”

The new plan, Ballard says, “varies from what was originally approved and they have to come back to the Board of Corrections.”

Chris Beschler, deputy chief administrative officer for the city, has a different interpretation. Beschler says the city believes the current jail proposal fits in the scope of the project the state OKed.

“They’ve given you their interpretation of what was approved in October and the city has a different interpretation,” Beschler tells Style Weekly, adding that the city is working to schedule a meeting with Ballard and state corrections officials next week to discuss the matter. “That’s the immediacy that the city is putting to this.”

Losing state funding could hurt the city’s plan to float general obligation bonds to pay for the project. Without a commitment from the state to reimburse the city for as much as 25 percent of the construction costs, the city may have to find additional revenue to secure financing. Or the city might have to wait until after the 2012 General Assembly session, assuming lawmakers approve the new plans, to issue bonds and begin construction.

Beschler says that because the state funding comes as a reimbursement for qualified construction costs, the city is initially on the hook for the entire project.

“We have a project that is going to cost the city $134.6 million. We have to come up with the funding, using the appropriations council has given us,” Beschler says. “The city all along had anticipated reimbursement at the end of the project.”

Beschler says he isn’t sure what the implications are for the bond issue. “I don’t know,” he says. “I think the best thing would be for us to sit down with Brooks and her department to get a complete understanding.”

For the last two weeks, Mayor Dwight Jones has pressed for a City Council vote by the end of July to avoid delaying the jail’s construction. After council’s approval Thursday night, the city hopes to have an agreement with the builders, Tompkins Builders and S.B. Ballard Construction, by early next month.

There are two reasons the city needs to go back to the state, says Bill Wilson, local facilities supervisor for the Virginia Department of Corrections. One, the original plans were for a new building plus a renovation of the existing jail. Two, the original plans called for a 1,032-bed jail, plus 103 additional beds for inmates who must be segregated from the general inmate population.

Tompkins/Ballard’s proposal calls for an entirely new facility that also incorporates the existing women’s jail on the property. Council approved a 1,032-bed jail, with 108 segregated beds already included in that figure.

“The scope has changed completely and therefore it has to come before the [Virginia Board of Corrections],” Wilson says. “I have received nothing regarding anything about this new jail.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Councilman Marty Jewell raised the bed count with city officials, but was told it wasn’t an issue.

“It’s my understanding that if you build 1,032 beds you would need an additional 10 percent that would be set aside for isolation and segregation beds, on top of the 1,032,” Jewell asked Sheriff C.T. Woody. “You are saying that’s not true?”

“That’s not true,” Woody said. “It’s 1,032, not 1,132. It doesn’t require 10 percent more beds.” Woody also said that the 1,032-bed plan had “been approved by DOC.”

Ballard, the state corrections official, says the state approved a 1,032-bed jail with an additional 103 segregated beds, for a total of 1,135 beds. “They cannot by our standards be included in the general population,” Ballard says of the segregated beds, “and in this proposal they are.”

Beschler says the city believes it can incorporate the segregated beds as part of the 1,032 bed jail proposal.

“Our understanding was that we did get approval for a jail that was rated for 1,032 beds and that all the bed types were included in that 1,032,” Beschler says. “We want to sit down very quickly with them and get agreement on this.”

Wilson says it’s conceivable that the city could gain approval from the Department of Corrections prior to next meeting of the state corrections board, which is on Sept. 21. The city, he says, would probably need to resubmit a new planning study for the jail using the existing proposal from Tompkins/Ballard, subtracting 108 beds from the general population.

But there are other issues that come into play. For example, the state also funds the salaries of city jail employees, and the size of the facility determines the number of staff positions the state will allow. Wilson says the state funds, at a maximum, “one correctional officer for every three beds of rated capacity.” In other words, if the current plan is approved for a smaller jail, “they could lose up to 35 of those positions because the rated capacity is 108 beds less than it was.”

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