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Loss of federal inmates shackles regional jail

RELATED: See more crime news from the Fredericksburg region

The Rappahannock Regional Jail, which often dealt with overcrowded conditions in the past, is facing a different type of numbers crunch these days.

It doesn’t have as many federal prisoners as in recent years—and the lower numbers are causing a budget problem.

Since 2008, jail officials have sought to handle immigration violators because of the hefty reimbursement that comes with them. The federal government pays $60 a day for jails to house them, said Jail Superintendent Joe Higgs.

That’s compared with $4 a day from the state for local inmates sentenced to more than 12 months in jail.

The federal money takes some of the financial burden off the four jurisdictions served by the regional facility. They are: Fredericksburg and the counties of King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford.

At one time, Higgs could count on getting 250 immigration inmates a year at the jail off U.S. 1 in Stafford.

That number “kept decreasing, decreasing,” Higgs said, to the point he budgeted for 170 immigration inmates a year.

Even that number seems unattainable.

“Right now, we’re averaging 23 to 25 a month,” Higgs said Friday.

‘GOOD-FAITH AGREEMENT’

The average number of federal inmates is a far cry from the 250 minimum that Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) officers promised in an oral agreement with Higgs in 2008.

At one time, ICE asked if it could house as many as 1,000 federal inmates in Stafford, Higgs said.

“We went on a good-faith agreement with them, hoping they would hold true to that agreement,” he said. “Unfortunately, they are not.”

The number of federal inmates has dropped for several reasons.

Higgs hasn’t gotten official confirmation of this, but said he believes fewer immigration violators are being arrested under the Obama administration.

And those who have been arrested are being sent to the privately operated Farmville Detention Center.

The facility opened in 2010 and is about 70 miles southwest of Richmond. It was built to house as many as 1,000 immigration violators and was contracted by ICE and the city of Farmville.

‘AN EYE-OPENER’

Last month, Higgs and former King George Sheriff Moose Dobson, a consultant at the jail, spoke to the King George Board of Supervisors about the changing financial climate at the jail.

They warned that the four local jurisdictions—which are already hard-pressed to meet their own budget demands—could be paying more for jail services in the future.

“We haven’t been paying the true cost of operating that facility because we’ve been saving a lot of money by housing a fair number of federal inmates,” Dobson said.

When the time comes that the localities have to absorb the full cost, “it’s going to be an eye-opener,” Dobson said.

The jail opened in 2000 with room for 656 inmates. By 2004, quarters were cramped as the population hovered close to 1,000 inmates.

At one time, there were so many prisoners, the jail paid $2 million one year to have them housed in other facilities.

The jail expanded in 2008. With its new capacity of 1,836 inmates, it started seeking federal inmates, Higgs said.

These days, the population of the regional facility averages about 1,400 prisoners.

“It’s a small city, with 8.5 acres under roof,” Higgs said.

The jail gets funding from a number of sources, but the bulk of it comes from local, state and federal governments.

For fiscal year 2014, its operational budget is $36 million. The jail expects to get $11.7 million from local jurisdictions, $10.6 million from the state and $3.7 million from the federal government.

The four localities pay their share, based on how many residents were in the jail the previous year. For the next fiscal year, the split is divided this way:

  • Stafford, 43 percent, or $5 million.
  • Spotsylvania, 27 percent, or $3.2 million.
  • Fredericksburg, 22 percent, or $2.6 percent.
  • King George, 8 percent or $948,000.

RESERVES RUNNING LOW

In “the good years, when we were holding more federal inmates,” the jail built up a reserve fund that reached $9 million, Dobson said.

The jail also set aside one-sixth of its operating budget in reserves, as mandated in its bond requirements.

Jail officials can’t use that reserve, but they can tap into the undesignated fund. And they’ve done that since the state cut its reimbursement four years ago—from $8 to $4 a day for prisoners—and left the jail with $1.6 million less in revenue, Dobson said.

The jail has continued to dip into those reserves to make up its funding shortfall.

“It’s a bad budget practice, and you’ll find no city manager or county administrator doing that,” Dobson said. “One of these days, you’re gonna run out of money.”

Dobson and Higgs worry that day is coming.

There’s about $3.6 million left in the undesignated reserve fund, and Higgs and Dobson are concerned that the fund could be depleted by a major repair.

The jail recently paid almost $600,000 to repair a main water line at the facility, Higgs said. The jail also has a boiler that needs replacing.

“It don’t take much to go wrong in a facility of over 8 acres to eat up some money,” Dobson said.

Dobson said the jail, which opened in 2000, ages faster than a typical office building because it is used 24 hours a day.

“That’s equal to 36 years of wear and tear,” he told the King George board.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

THE HIGH COST OF ICE

The Rappahannock Regional Jail isn’t the only one facing financial problems because of immigration violators.

While the local jail wants more immigration inmates because of the money paid to house them, the federal government said last month it couldn’t afford to keep them all behind bars.

In late February, as mandatory federal budget cuts loomed, the Department of Homeland Security started releasing hundreds of immigrants from jails across the country. The department warned it might not be able to afford the 34,000 immigration jail beds mandated by Congress.

On average in February 2013, there were 30,773 people being held in ICE jails, according to an Associated Press story.

OTHER AREA JAILS

The issue of immigration inmates affects the Rappahannock Regional Jail more than its counterparts in the region.

The Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw has a contract with the federal government to provide beds for federal inmates and gets that money regardless of how many prisoners it holds.

The Peumansend Creek Regional Jail in Caroline County serves a different population. It holds Northern Virginia inmates who already have been through the booking and intake processes in their jurisdictions.

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