Under current plan, Middle River Regional Jail expansion would cost city nearly $10m

About five years after paying more than $10 million to join the Middle River Regional Jail Authority, Harrisonburg could be facing another $10 million tab to expand the facility in Verona.

By Sergio Ossorio, contributor

If the $96.5 million expansion plan that the Middle River Regional Jail Authority Board just submitted to the state becomes reality, Harrisonburg’s share of the cost would total $9.8 million, according to city staff. As one of five member jurisdictions of the regional jail authority, Harrisonburg funds the jail’s operational and capital costs based on its share of the total inmate population.

After the authority board hired a consultant in early 2019 to plan an expansion for the crowded jail, it voted last month to move forward with a $96.5 million option that would include 400 new beds, a new clinic and other infrastructure. It was the most expensive of three options that Moseley Architects presented to the authority board in November.

None of the five members of city council responded with comment to inquiries from The Citiezn about the upcoming jail expense.

State funding approval still at least a year off

According to Harrisonburg Finance Director Larry Propst, the next step toward expanding the jail would be each member jurisdiction submitting resolutions of support to the Virginia Board of Corrections by May 1. The Board of Corrections would then need to approve a needs assessment and planning study before state funding would be allocated through a budget bill to be considered by the General Assembly in 2021. Although the state pays half the cost of constructing or expanding a regional jail, the member jurisdictions are responsible for the remainder.

Middle River Superintendent Jeffery Newton said the local portion of expansion funding will likely come from a bond issued by the jail authority board.

“This bond issue, as with the original bond issue for construction, would not require any pledge or guarantee of the debt by the member jurisdictions. The Middle River Regional Jail Authority would be issuing the bond not each individual member,” he said.

According to Propst, that means Harrisonburg’s newly-strained ability to borrow money for other capital projects will not be affected by expansion of the regional jail because that project does not involve city-issued bonds.

Latest expansion comes just years after the last one

Harrisonburg and Rockingham County joined the Middle River Regional Jail Authority in 2015 to relieve severe overcrowding at the jail in downtown Harrisonburg. To join the regional authority – then a three-way partnership between Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County – Harrisonburg and Rockingham County split a $21.5 million buy-in fee. By late 2018, the inmate population at the regional jail had risen well above its capacity, setting in motion the current process of planning another jail expansion.

“I definitely did not anticipate such an expansion being needed at all, let alone in such a short amount of time,” said Kai Degner, a Harrisonburg council member at the time the city voted to join the regional jail, in an email. “This represents to me a failure of any and all efforts to install alternatives to incarceration at a substantial rather than symbolic level.”

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