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Board OKs controversial $49M Charlottesville jail renovation in 10-1 vote

Months of public pushback could not stop the inevitable Thursday afternoon, when the board that oversees the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail successfully pushed through a plan to renovate the facility.

While the project price is pegged at $49 million, that is expected to balloon to $73 million once the interest on the bonds needed to fund the project are added.

The final vote was 10-1, even after a bevy of taxpayers raised significant concerns during public comment.

It is a victory for jail Superintendent Martin Kumer and his staff, as well as Moseley Architects, the Richmond firm enlisted to help execute the renovation that will include demolishing the east wing of the 1975-vintage facility and building a two-story, 33,100-square-foot structure in its place.

But it’s a stinging defeat for opponents who are convinced that the jail’s bleak conditions could be meaningfully improved at a much lower price and that the board did not seriously consider cheaper alternatives.

What’s more, the plan’s opponents feel they were not only cut out of the decision-making process, but that their own words were used against them to justify a $49 million renovation they do not support.

“I want to go home and cry,” Susan Perry, a local criminal justice reform activist, told The Daily Progress after the vote.

She was one of many who left disappointed.

It was the culmination of months, if not years, of frustration for those who have been watching the project closely. As the 11-member board heard during public comment, several of the renovation’s critics had been previously told that there would be more time before any commitments were made, that decision makers would accommodate community feedback in the final proposal.

But the project approved on Thursday is the same project that board leadership first proposed in 2021.

The majority of board members think that $49 million project is in the best interest of the community.

“For a community as wealthy and compassionate as ours, it’s unconscionable not to make the sort of renovation that we need to make,” Charlottesville City Council member Brian Pinkston, who sits on the jail board, said before casting his vote.

Critics have argued that it would be more compassionate to put money into social programs that are shown to reduce crime and help prevent people from entering the criminal justice system at all.

That was part of the argument Lisa Draine, the lone board member to vote against the project, made as she tried in vain to sway her colleagues.

“A crisis of prioritization exists when we continue to pour millions of taxpayer dollars into structures like this jail which, I’m sorry, are designed to detain, humiliate and harm mostly poor people in our community,” Draine said.

A citizen representative, Draine was alone on the board when she advocated for a far cheaper $25 million renovation that would see savings fund social programs in the communities the jail serves. It was a position shared by the 15 or so members of the public who attended the meeting who would rather see the money spent on education, mental health programs and affordable housing.

“I’m asking you to use your platforms to advocate for a deep investment of our shared resources for community programs and services that service individuals reentering society and that address long-term solutions to issues that may lead to someone ending up here in the first place,” she said.

In Pinkston’s prepared comments, he argued the board’s primary responsibility was to make sure the jail was as ethical and as effective as possible.

“It is not the role of the ACRJ or others to be making larger, regional decisions about mental health or other ways to spend taxpayers’ money. That’s the job of the elected officials who lead their respective jurisdictions,” Pinkston said. “The role of this body is to take care of the jail.”

Ultimately, Pinkston and Albemarle County Supervisor Diantha McKeel, who is the board’s chairwoman, are betting that more community members want to see the $49 million renovation than don’t. They believe the critics are a small but vocal minority.

“I have to also represent the people that are not in this room. The people that don’t have time to come to these meetings or that have a different viewpoint, but they can’t get here for whatever reasons,” McKeel told The Daily Progress. “My job is to represent everybody, not just the loudest voices.”

Those who spoke during public comment said that they are not alone. Their neighbors and friends, they said, share their concerns.

Kate Fraleigh said she has been following the process since 2019. She’s been regularly advocating for the board to spend less money on a renovation, replacing piping and HVAC instead of creating a brand-new wing that will increase the jail’s square footage.

She told The Daily Progress she was not surprised by the outcome of Thursday’s vote.

And while both opponents and proponents believe the majority of the public is on their side, no one can say for sure how many residents in the jail’s service area — which includes the city of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle and Nelson — actually support the project.

“I think most people aren’t paying attention,” Fraleigh said.

The governing bodies of Charlottesville, Albemarle and Nelson must now vote to approve the project before it is set in stone. Each body appears to have the votes necessary to advance the plan.

Charlottesville, Albemarle and Nelson plan to split the cost of any renovation: Albemarle will be responsible for 45.39% with the city covering 39.87% and Nelson covering 14.74%. The project is eligible for 25% reimbursement from the commonwealth.


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