By Elizabeth Bell
The Rockbridge Regional Jail, which has struggled with overcrowding for years, is projected to be $728,000 – or 15% — over budget by the end of the fiscal year, County Administrator Spencer Suter said in an interview.
“Now whether or not that comes to pass I’m not sure,” said Suter, who is also a member of the Rockbridge Regional Jail Commission. “But we do certainly have increasing jail costs.”
Overcrowding at the jail has contributed to the increasing costs. The jail has to pay other facilities to take prisoners that it has no space for, he said.
“Our regional jail is significantly overcrowded,” said Josh Elrod, the commonwealth’s attorney of Buena Vista. “It’s way above maximum capacity and there’s no more space.”
The jail, which was built in 1988 to hold 56 inmates, was double-bunked so it could hold 111 inmates. As of Nov. 13, the inmate population was 158.
“We’re holding way more inmates than the jail was designed for,” Suter said.
An additional 81 inmates have been assigned to other facilities because the jail has no space for them, he said.
“We’re having to contract beds from outside that facility and that costs the localities a good deal of money,” Elrod said. “It also leads to difficult conditions for running the jail and less than ideal conditions for the inmate population, and none of that is good.”
In addition to the cost of holding inmates at other facilities, rising medical expenses, and maintenance of the facility’s infrastructure have all contributed to the projected budget shortfall for this fiscal year, Suter said.
The jail’s budget has increased by 73%, or nearly $2 million, since 2010. If the projected deficit for this fiscal year continues, that will be an additional 15% increase.
Measures are being considered to cut costs and lessen the projected deficit by the end of the year.
“We’re taking steps to manage it now, so that for the rest of the fiscal year, we can try and keep those costs in check,” said Jim Halasz, Lexington’s City Manager. “Hopefully when we end the year we aren’t quite in the same situation as we are now.”
One option for cutting costs is to reduce the inmate population, but there’s only so much that can be done while still enforcing the law, Suter said.
Most of the inmates at the Rockbridge Regional Jail are violent offenders, or offenders with lengthy criminal histories, Elrod said.
“It’s a real challenge because very few people who are there are there for minor, non-violent, first offense crimes,” he said. “Some of them are there for relatively minor crimes, but usually that’s because they have been convicted three, four, seven, 10 times.”
At the end of the fiscal year, Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista will be responsible for splitting the cost of the budget deficit. Rockbridge County is responsible for providing most of the jail’s funds.
To pay for the rising jail costs, Rockbridge County will have to generate more revenue or cut costs.
“A penny on our tax rate brings in about $255,000 annually. You can’t just look at the shortfall this year, you have to predict it for the next year,” Suter said. “That’s how we’d have to handle it. That and tightening the belt anywhere else we can.”
Lexington is responsible for only 5% of the jail’s costs, so the burden of the projected deficit is lessened compared to the other localities, said Halasz.
Faced with rising costs and overcrowding, Suter has been looking into options for the jail moving forward.
“The facilities committee has been looking at what needs to be done and what our options are moving ahead,” he said. “I did a little research myself and sent the superintendent a potential program for capital improvement planning.”
Jail Superintendent Derek Almarode was unavailable for comment.