While commissioners agreed this week to provide funds to pay for inmates housed outside Halifax County, the question still lingers of how to pay for the expansion of the existing jail.
Commissioner Patrick Qualls said of a decision Monday to fund a request from Sheriff Wes Tripp for $115,000 to meet the budget for housing these inmates, “We didn’t have a choice of whether we funded this request.”
Tripp said Wednesday the sheriff’s office has spent $267,831 to date on housing inmates elsewhere. The sheriff had been budgeted $386,000 for the line item. The allocation brought the line item to slightly above $500,000.
While the funds were a quick fix to the inmate housing issue at the county detention center, Qualls said, “If we do not come up with a way to hold our population down then the long-term solution will be building a new jail or an expansion.”
One of the discussions during Monday’s board of commissioners meeting was made by Commissioner Marcelle Smith to bring together representatives from the board, county administration, the sheriff’s office, judges and the district attorney to find ways to ease the overcrowding situation which has led to an approximately six-year cap on the number of inmates which can be housed at the detention center.
Qualls referred to that committee as “a good caveat to address the jail population. We need to expeditiously dispose of plea bargains and trial cases. When our DA is in charge of four counties because of the state’s consolidation of districts, it makes it very difficult to manage the workload and the cases.”
Earlier this month, commissioners “voted on and approved an allowance for the architect to update the plans for the jail expansion and the cost associated with it,” Qualls said. “How we pay for it we don’t know because we don’t how much it will cost.”
The sheriff said, “As an elected official, I am a taxpayer serving taxpayers. Upon my retirement in three years, I want to leave the office better than I found it. With the county commissioners’ help, there has been much improvement in our law enforcement duties and responsibilities.”
He said, “However, better and fair salaries for all county employees are needed and the jail expansion needs to come to fruition. The condition of the current detention center is serious, if not critical. In my opinion these two can be accomplished without a tax increase. I feel confident they can do this without a tax increase.”
Qualls isn’t sure. “To say we can do a jail expansion without a tax increase is unrealistic in my opinion. We’ve asked staff to check and see if there are any state or federal grants to support the initiative.”
Board of commissioner Chairman Vernon Bryant said the jail is a priority. “We had plans before to move forward. We have revisited it, our county management team has met with architects on moving forward with the lowest cost.”
Said Bryant: “We have got to bring the jail up to standards. We have appointed a committee of judicial and court officials and management to meet and collaborate to reduce the jail population. It’s a very high priority with county officials. We have given the county manager the directive to notify those who will be in the meeting, let them know the purpose of the meeting. We plan to do it right away, probably within a couple of weeks.”
Bryant said talks of jail expansion have been “kicked down the road since I’ve been a county commissioner and before I was a county commissioner. What I’m hoping for is a way we can work together to minimize offenders in the jail.”
Bryant believes the chief court counselor and the adult probation manager need to be in on the discussions as well. “We’re going to take up some discussion when it comes to the jail. We have to deal with it now, we can’t allow this to continue. It’s going to be a priority and be on the radar until we get it done.”
What the sheriff hopes to gain out of the meeting is “continued awareness of our population problem and that we all continue to work to find better results.”
Tripp said he has already forgone improvements and expansion to the sheriff’s office to address the jail expansion. “When I could see how costly the jail expansion was I recommended to forego remodeling and expansion of the sheriff’s side so we could concentrate on the jail expansion shortly after my appointment. We have also had to extend our office to a satellite location in Roanoke Rapids. ”
In a memo, Tripp reported in December the sheriff’s office had an average of 35 inmates housed outside Halifax County each day. That equates to $1,400 daily for inmates in other jails. Calculated by 31 days, the sheriff’s office spent $43,000 in housing costs for inmates housed in other jails in January. If the stream of inmates was consistently at that number the annual payment would be around $516,000.
In January there were 22 recorded transports of inmates in other jails. “ … We had a total of 58 hours and 32 minutes in manpower costs.”
Calculated by an average salary of $16.83 per hour that equals $981.53 in personnel costs. “The mileage driven for these 22 transports was 2,469.”
Those costs include the initial transportation and the cost of carrying these inmates back and forth for court appearances.
According to the IRS mileage rate of 55 cents per mile that equals $1,345.61.
This month the sheriff’s office has already spent $14,960 for inmates in other jails.
It is an issue that dates back to before Tripp was appointed sheriff and he is currently working under a state-imposed cap of 85 inmates — 77 males and 8 females. “If I don’t comply we face the situation of the state closing down the jail. This expansion concept was started during Jeff Frazier’s administration. At that time we were averaging between 120 to 140 inmates a day. State jail officials once they realized we were in the process of working towards considering a jail expansion worked with us on the situation. When commissioners in 2013-2014 decided to table the expansion that’s when the state placed the cap.”
Asked whether the 120 to 140 inmates a day the sheriff’s office contended with in 2013-2014 would be the same today, Tripp said, “No. We’ve seen cooperation with our district attorney’s office and our local judicial system to work with us on our jail crowding problem.”
But, the sheriff said, “I’m running out of ideas and options to make it work without it being extremely costly to the county. I’m not the keeper of the money, however, I do my very best to be a good steward of that money and had the commissioners chosen to move forward with the jail expansion in 2013-2014, with all the money that’s been spent to the present on housing inmates elsewhere I feel that it could have been used to pay towards the expansion.”
In the memo concerning the transportation costs, Tripp said, “Therefore, including housing and transportation costs, we spent $45,724.17 on special out inmates in January. With our detention center expansion this amount would have been saved.”