Council again asks sheriff to consider ditching the jail ‘keep fee,’ also passes 2020 budget

By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor

The Harrisonburg city council ratcheted up pressure on the Rockingham County sheriff regarding the $1-a-day “keep fee” at the local jail. After a lengthy discussion about wording and efficacy, the council unanimously adopted a resolution on Tuesday evening to formally ask Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson to “examine the possibility of eliminating the $1-day jail fee.”

Council member George Hirschmann was absent from the meeting.

The document also asks that the local jail and Middle River Regional Jail “consider ways to address the disproportionate cost to women relocated to the Middle River Regional Jail during renovations at the Rockingham Harrisonburg Regional Jail.”

The keep fee at Middle River is $3 per day, which any local female inmates would have to pay in order to access the commissary while temporarily housed there during the renovations.

The “keep fee” isn’t mandatory for inmates but is charged to any who want to access the commissary for extra food or items. But the fees add up and cover as much as $125,000 toward the local jail’s operating budget, as Hutcheson told The Citizen last fall.

The resolution’s adoption prompted applause from many of the meeting attendees, including several members of the grassroots organization Faith in Action, whom Mayor Deanna Reed recognized for their work advocating for criminal justice reform.

Before the resolution passed, the council voted unanimously to amend the original wording before adopting it.

“This body has made multiple recommendations” about ending the keep fee, said council member Chris Jones, including offering to pay for the revenue that would be lost with its abolition. He said he hoped to see the council and activists recognized for the work they have already done to this end.

Council member Richard Baugh suggested an amendment to say that the council “reiterates its request” regarding the fee, which both Reed and Jones agreed they would support.

“I don’t like doing things that are just symbolic,” said Jones, but he acknowledged that the resolution would be meaningful to some in the community.

Vice mayor Sal Romero, who drafted the resolution, said it demonstrates to the public that the council cares about criminal justice reform.

Budget unanimously passes

The local justice system also came up in discussions concerning the city’s 2019-2020 budget, which was passed unanimously Tuesday night. The $274 million budget does include a “criminal justice position” to be funded jointly with the county. The city manager’s budget letter notes that “all new positions are funded for one?half year beginning January 1, 2020.”

The budget also includes a unanimously adopted one-cent raise in the real estate tax rate, from 85 to 86 cents per $100 of assessed value.

In a public hearing about the real estate tax rate, resident Julia Davis asked the city to refrain from funding the local jail as long as it collaborates with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. She called the agents “domestic terrorists.”

Jones and Baugh explained that the city is legally obligated to pay its portion of the local jail and court system, which is shared with the county, and that the council cannot dictate how that money is spent.

“The person who makes a decision on that is on the ballot this fall” without an opponent, said Baugh, referring to Hutcheson.

“That’s the way you guarantee you change it,” said Jones.

Jones also spoke about the community contributions portion of the budget, apologizing to the organizations “we weren’t able to fund,” including Blue Ridge CASA for Children and an incipient 4H chapter.

“It is my hope that we end [the fiscal year] in some sort of surplus,” Jones said. “I really hope that we’re able to go back and help these organizations.”

Baugh said that most of the nearly three-hour budget work session last Thursday was spent discussing those community contributions.

“There was consensus that this needs to change,” Baugh said.

One resident during the public hearing on the real estate tax rate expressed fears about paying her bills as a retired person relying largely on Social Security income.

“We do keep in mind all the residents of Harrisonburg,” Romero said. “How do we protect vulnerable individuals, especially those on a fixed income?”

Baugh said that city staff will soon review real estate tax exemptions for the elderly and disabled to make sure they are not “falling behind.”

Interpreter services to start in June

Language interpreter services at city council and planning commission meetings are slated to be available in June. A public announcement will be made when when the program starts. As part of the one-year pilot program, Spanish, Arabic, and Kurdish interpreters will be available for those meetings with four days’ advance notice given to the city clerk.

City staff is currently reviewing 22 individual applications and one company application for the interpreter positions. Interpreters will use headsets borrowed from the city schools to simultaneously interpret meeting proceedings, and can also listen to and translate public comments to the council.

Anyone requesting interpretation at a meeting must arrive to that meeting by 7:15 p.m.

Housing Authority pinpoints number of homeless

Michael Wong of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority gave a report on homelessness and affordable housing at the meeting, including numbers from the regional Continuum of Care’s 2019 Point in Time count of homeless persons in Harrisonburg. As of late January, the census identified 132 homeless persons in the city, down from 149 at the same time last year.

Wong asked for $75,000 of funding from the city for the housing authority’s street outreach program, which sends employees to known camping spots of unsheltered persons to connect them to services. It also includes a walk-in community resource center and a centralized intake program, as well as technology to network all homelessness services in the city.

He also asked the council to reconsider supporting a subsidized housing development at 650 East Gay Street, which the council voted against last year, in large part, because council members said at the time they objected to subsidized housing being concentrated in the Northeast Neighborhood.

“We’re not against the housing,” Reed said. “We’re against putting it where you want to put it in that neighborhood.” She and Jones on Tuesday reiterated their comments from the debate last year. The housing authority currently runs four housing complexes, all in the northeast neighborhood.

“We need to make sure every neighborhood is inclusive,” said Reed.

“I think there’s a hyper-tendency in this country to put public housing around black and Spanish folks and poor white folks,” Jones said. He also said he hears complaints from neighborhood residents about the appearance and maintenance of the subsidized housing properties.

“Please, let me know,” said Wong, who said he would address any issues once made aware.

Also at the meeting:

  • The council voted unanimously to approve the school board’s request to pursue an interim agreement with Nielsen Builders, Inc., to begin designing the new high school. In the vote, they also requested that city manager Eric Campbell bring an appropriation ordinance to the next council meeting for them to review the school board’s request of $3.3 million to pay for the design services in the interim agreement.
  • During public comment, both Tom Domonoske and Poti Giannakouros acknowledged the death of local resident Quiet T. Please last week. Domonoske said that there are many kinds of public figures in any city, and “at least in my part of Harrisonburg, he was a very public figure.”
  • The council unanimously approved two electric easements for the Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative to provide electricity to the shelter at the Smithland Road Dog Park.

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