By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Recent renovations at the Bluefield City Jail will save local law enforcement agencies time and money in transporting prisoners, but Mercer County must keep working to pay a high regional jail bill.
The county currently pays $48.25 a day to keep an inmate at the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver, said Mike Vinciguerra, president of the Mercer County Commission. While this fee does not seem to be a large amount of money, it multiples quickly with each inmate housed at the facility. Vinciguerra estimated that the county’s current jail bill is approximately $420,000.
“We paid $150,000 this week,” he said of the county’s latest payment to the regional jail system. “But the bill that came in for December (2013) was $141,000. Within the last three years, we’ve lowered it from $1 million to $420,000.”
The county’s overall annual budget is approximately $11 to $12 million, and the county’s jail bill is $1.7 million a year, Vinciguerra said.
Jail bills will keep arriving at the Mercer County Courthouse as long as there is crime, but being able to pay off those bills every month would be the ideal situation, he said.
“That is my goal, that we will be able to get it down to where we can pay each and every month,” Vinciguerra said.
The county also keeps suspects at the Bluefield City Jail if they need to be held briefly. The city charges $45 a day per person, and it saves the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department deputy from driving that person to and from the regional jail, Vinciguerra said.
The Bluefield City Jail was recently closed for renovations, but it is now back in service, said City Manager Jim Ferguson.
“They painted all the walls and the floor, there are new light fixtures, and new lavatories,” Ferguson said. The new stainless steel lavatories are designed to be “tamper proof,” he added.
“It looks really good,” Ferguson said of the refurbished jail.
The facility, which can hold 16 detainees, is used by law enforcement agencies all across Mercer County.
“Princeton brings detainees here, and Athens, Bramwell, the state police, and the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department. I’ve seen them all pull in there with detainees,” Ferguson said. “We think the jail is a valuable resource for law enforcement in our whole community.”
Before the regional jail system opened, Mercer County maintained a jail in the top floor of the Mercer County Courthouse. The county commission once considered the idea of opening a small detainment area in the old jail, but this has become cost prohibitive. Most of the space is now used for storage, said Sheriff Don Meadows.
“Well, there’s not much they can do up there, because they put so much stuff up there,” Meadows said. “It would cost more to do than what it would save us.”
The regional jail system has not turned out to be what was presented to the counties before it opened, Meadows said. In one instance, the counties were told that deputies would not have to transport suspects to and from the jails, but now deputies have to do that almost daily.
A deputy takes care of magistrate court every day, Meadows said. When this deputy has a day off, another has to be assigned to the duty. On some days, the sheriff’s department has to handle up to 25 prisoners that were brought to the county for court appearances.
“We’re not supposed to be in the prisoner business, but we are,” he said.
Counties were also assured that the cost of keeping inmates would not increase.
“They told us prices would never go up,” Meadows recalled. “It was $34 a day. It’s a lie. It’s got to go up. That’s the only way you can continue to operate.”
The most the county ever spent on operating its jail for one year was $670,000, he added.
“Part of the expense on our jail was salaries, and that money was spent in Mercer County.”