The Pittsylvania County jail is currently housing roughly three times as many inmates as the Virginia Department of Corrections rates it for. A plan to redistribute the inmates between a regional jail and a new county jail is at least three to five years out, officials say.
And that is only one of the many large capital projects looming for Pittsylvania County. For a new jail, courthouse and offices for several different departments, as well as $45 million needed during the next five years for maintenance and renovation of the county’s public schools, about $120 million will be needed over the next seven to 10 years.
“The county doesn’t have anywhere close to the necessary cash on hand to begin any of those projects,” said Pittsylvania County Administrator David Smitherman.
Often housing more than 100 inmates in a jail originally rated for 36, Pittsylvania County is taking steps to build a smaller jail — one that would house somewhere between 50 and 60 inmates — and send the rest to the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority. Some inmates from Pittsylvania County already are housed in the Blue Ridge facility at a rate of $27.50 per day, which is much less expensive than the $105.53 cost per inmate per day at the Chatham facility, according to the most recent report from the State Compensation Board.
In addition to simply being overcrowded, the jail, which is more than 40 years old, is failing mechanically, and therefore can’t offer weekend work release or house female inmates, among other things.
“The facility is basically disintegrating from inside out,” Smitherman said.
A study by Moseley Architects stated the county has one of the most overcrowded jails in the state and concluded that it needs 168 total beds to manage the jail population.
“Practically every area of the Jail is crowded, congested and deficiencies are noted in virtually all areas referenced in the Virginia Standards for local correctional facilities,” the report stated.
They provided three possible options: a small on-site facility to be used with Blue Ridge, a three-level on-site option that would house all of the inmates or a small off-site facility to be used with Blue Ridge, which is what the county chose.
The estimated cost of the county jail, for which officials are still attempting to locate land, is somewhere between $17.88 million and $19.97 million, said Richard Hicks, assistant county administrator. The main reason the county chose this option, as opposed to an onsite facility, was space.
“To put a courthouse and a jail on that property down there would not give us enough parking spaces,” Hicks said.
In the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in July, the county will request $100,000 for a Community Based Corrections Plan — a study that must be completed before Virginia will provide 25% of the necessary construction funding.
Right now, the jail, which is right in the middle of downtown Chatham, is a shared building with the Pittsylvania County courthouse, the Commissioner of Revenue and the Treasurer’s Office. And all of those departments are very crowded, Smitherman said.
Once the new jail is operational, the county would tear down many of the surrounding buildings, including the School Board Administrative offices, the 911 Center, the planning department, and the county maintenance facility. The current courthouse would be renovated to accommodate those departments, while a new, improved courthouse would be placed where the other departments were.
The estimated cost of building the new courthouse would be roughly $49 million, Hicks said, with the rest of the renovations and relocation combining to cost over $14 million.
Right now, Pittsylvania County does not have the ability to take on any more debt to fund those projects. In 2001, the county borrowed over $38 million for the construction four middle schools — Chatham, Gretna, Tunstall and Dan River. That debt will be paid off in fiscal year 2025, said Finance Director Kim Vanderhyde.
Right now, the county is paying $3 million annually towards the middle school debt. Once that is paid off, that $3 million can be redistributed toward other capital projects, particularly a new jail, Smitherman said.
In 2007, the county borrowed $70 million for the renovation of all four high schools, a debt that will be fully paid off in fiscal year 2031.
“Until some of that [debt] gets retired, we have no way of doing any capital projects without raising taxes,” Smitherman said.
For all of their capital projects and maintenance, the school division needs $45 million over the next five years, said Pittsylvania County Administrator David Smitherman.
Most of the projects are from the county’s 19-year-old middle schools and elementary schools, the newest of which are 20 years old, said superintendent Mark Jones. Replacing outdated roofs and HVAC systems are two of the major needs for these schools.
“You’re kind of putting Band-Aids on things to get by,” Mike Hutson, director of maintenance for the school division said at a recent school board meeting.
To help fund those projects, the county — along with Henry County and Danville — are hoping that the General Assembly approves a referendum that would allow each of the localities to implement a 1% sales tax hike, all of which would go toward schools capital needs. For Pittsylvania County, that translates to about $2.6 million annually, which would help cover a significant portion of the school capital projects.
The goal is to be able to fund all of these projects without raising the real estate tax, Smitherman said.
The board of supervisors raised the real estate tax from 59 cents to 62 cents for every $100 in the 2019 fiscal year, a rate that remained in effect for the 2020 fiscal year as well. That rate is higher than all the neighboring counties, but much lower than Danville and Martinsville, which are taxed at rates of 84 cents and $1.06, respectively.
“We’re going to be juggling some balls for the next several years,” Smitherman said. “It’s going to be a game of Russian roulette.”
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.