Regional jail costs increasing

Published 5:25 pm Friday, March 13, 2020

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Isle of Wight County’s cost to continue using the Western Tidewater Regional Jail will increase by just under $219,000 come the start of fiscal year 2020-2021 in July.

According to County Administrator Randy Keaton, who serves as one of the county’s representatives on the WTRJ Authority Board, Isle of Wight’s share of the cost to operate the jail, which the county shares with the cities of Franklin and Suffolk, was $1,074,415, or roughly 17 percent of the jail’s overall budget, in 2019. The nearly $219,000 increase in Isle of Wight’s local contribution is the result of a 2-percent rise in the number of Isle of Wight inmates housed at the jail, combined with a nearly $1 million increase in operating expenses. According to jail Superintendent William Smith, the jail will likely need $950,000 in additional local funds, about $600,000 of which will fund salary increases for corrections officers.

Jail staff had conducted a compensation study last year, which Smith said had concluded that WTRJ officers, particularly entry-level ones, were underpaid by $4,000 to $8,000 compared to other regional jails and local police departments.

“With the job market the way it is now we just can’t compete if our salaries are not where they need to be,” Smith said. “We’ve had the highest turnover this past year. A lot of that is attributed to pay.”

The jail offers entry-level corrections officers a starting salary of $32,559, which rises to around $35,821 during the first year of service. Entry-level Suffolk police officers who have yet to attend and graduate from the police academy, by comparison, earn $42,000. The city of Franklin offers an even higher starting salary, $43,180, for trainee officers. The Southampton County Sheriff’s Office offers around $35,000 for trainees, with the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office offering $38,710.

According to Franklin Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham, who serves as one of that city’s representatives on the WTRJ board, the authority offset just over $400,000 of the anticipated $950,000 increase by agreeing to accept 20 additional federal inmates.

Smith added that the authority further reduced this cost by including additional state funding in its budget, which is the result of Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed raises for regional jail officers in the General Assembly’s draft biennial 2020-2022 budget. This left about $397,000 of the original $950,000 increase to be distributed among each Western Tidewater locality.

“Keep in mind that this is the first increase we have had in the jail for four years,” Cheatham said. “Increasing the federal inmates is a very risky move, as all it takes, as we have experienced, is an email to lose them to another facility. We are guaranteed 75 and we are budgeting 150.”

The jail houses, on average, more than 150 federal inmates, Cheatham added, and uses the resulting additional federal funds, after paying the state back for the overage, to fund its capital reserve for any large future expenses. This, the vice mayor explained, allows the jail to have funding on hand and not have to take on additional debt to fund repairs and improvements to the facility.

The WTRJ is one of the least expensive jails in the state, coming in at $59.78 for its operating cost per inmate per day, compared to the state average of $87.20, according to a 2018 report prepared by staff at the State Compensation Board. It is also the 10th lowest in local funding, with an average of just over 40 percent of its annual budget coming from Franklin, Suffolk and Isle of Wight tax dollars over a three-year period.

Isle of Wight County’s increase is the largest of the three localities, followed by Suffolk at $195,000 and Franklin at $73,000. Isle of Wight’s 2-percent increase in inmate population, coupled with its share of the planned salary increases, is the reason why it will see the largest increase, according to Smith.

“We haven’t come up with the exact figure we’re going to start our entry-levels at, but it will be closer to Suffolk PD and some of the surrounding jurisdictions,” Smith said.

It isn’t just low pay that’s driving the recent turnover, Smith added. The jail has also seen quite a few retirements over the past few years, particularly among officers who started when the jail was constructed in 1992. WTRJ policy, he said, allows officers who have served at least 25 years and who are at least 50 years old to retire with full benefits.

“We’re starting to see a large majority of our older staff reach those levels, then our new staff come in,” he said. “Some of those work out really well, and some, it seems, will get a better job offer.”

While some Virginia law enforcement agencies, such as Fredricksburg’s police departments, have implemented contract provisions requiring officers who receive their police academy training at department expense to stay with that department a set number of years, the WTRJ does not include such a provision in its employment contracts. Nor does the Franklin Police Department, according to department spokesman Sgt. Scott Halverson.