By Courtney Ridenhour
There is one subject John Higgins will not vote on when he joins the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors in January – the county jail.
Higgins, who won a two-way race last week for supervisor from the Buffalo district, will continue as the Rockbridge Regional Jail superintendent. He started as a sheriff’s deputy in May 1982. Supervisors are paid about $5,500 a year.
As a supervisor, he could bring a $17 million project back on the board’s agenda. But Higgins said he would just present the facts.
“I’ve got an attorney general’s opinion that I can be the jail superintendent and be on the [board],” Higgins said. “Matter of fact, their opinion is I can even vote on my budget, but I just don’t think it’s right and I won’t.”
Under Article VII, Section 6 of the Virginia Constitution, Higgins can hold both offices. If a jail-related issue comes before the board, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bucky Joyce would make a ruling as to whether the superintendent could vote on the matter, Higgins said.
Since 2005, Higgins has worked in conjunction with the jail commission to gather information about overcrowding in the jail.
But the county’s Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 in 2009 not to renew a 2007 resolution requesting funding from the state for the project, leaving the plan at a standstill.
“I think that there was a general feeling that we had not explored other options to incarceration,” said Hunt Riegel, who serves on the current Board of Supervisors, but will step down in January and voted against renewal.
Riegel said options like halfway houses for non-violent offenders cost roughly 20 percent of jail expansion.
“The numbers in jail simply didn’t warrant the increase in size,” he said.
The jail commission presented a revised plan for jail expansion in February 2010 that costs half the price of the original design. Architects estimated the project to cost just under $17 million and double capacity, according to the revised study.
“I don’t think anybody was against it. It was just timing – the financial burden,” Higgins said. He said he does not know when the county will look at jail expansion again, noting that it could be a matter of months or years, he said.
Riegel agreed. He said he did not know if the jail commission would present the plan again or not.
“It has pretty well died for now.”
The county built the current facility in 1988 and designed the building to hold 56. Cells were outfitted with bunks increasing available beds to 104.
On an average day, the jail houses 90 to 100 inmates. Depending on the composition of male, female, and juvenile inmates, the jail has had inmates sleeping on floors and in spare rooms.
Higgins said the increase in inmates is a result of more mandatory sentencing, an active drug task force, and domestic assault legislation.
“Here are the facts. You have this many beds, this many inmates, what are you going to do with the overflow someday?” asked Higgins.
It is a matter of timing and balancing needs in other areas, Higgins said. “I think you should take care of everything in your house. Your fire, your rescue, your hospitals, your trash – all of those infrastructures.”
Check out links to past Rockbridge Report stories concerning jail-related issues.