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Questions linger over state reimbursement of Charlottesville's multimillion-dollar jail renovation

The Charlottesville community appears on track to spend $72 million renovating its local jailhouse, in part because those proposing the changes have argued it’s a good deal.

After all, the project proposal has been approved by the commonwealth for a 25% reimbursement.

And while there are cheaper alternatives on the table, such as more modest renovations with price tags ranging from $25 million to $35 million, the jail authority has been vague as to whether those alternatives would also be eligible for the 25% reimbursement offered under Virginia law.

At the second of three community forums organized by the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, an architect hired to execute the renovation mentioned that the 1975 facility is not up to current standards. The most expensive option — which is projected to cost $49 million but would ultimately cost $72 million due to interest on bonds required to fund the project — would help meet some of those standards by demolishing the jail’s east wing and building a modern, two-story wing in its place.

The other options would not bring as much of the jail up to current standards, and that could hurt the authority’s chances of receiving a full 25% reimbursement, Tony Bell of Richmond-based Moseley Architects told those at the forum.

“Projects are analyzed on a holistic basis for reimbursement,” the jail’s superintendent, Martin Kumer, told The Daily Progress in early February. “If the objective is to do as much as you can to bring the facility into compliance, then the project will be viewed more favorably for full reimbursement. If the perception of the project is to only do minor modifications and with no sincere intent to come in compliance, then the project may not receive full reimbursement.”

Before a jail can be renovated, it must receive approval from the commonwealth. That starts with approval from the Board of Local and Regional Jails, an 11-member body that determines if a proposed project may proceed, and if it is eligible for reimbursement. The most expensive proposal, known as Option 3, was presented to that board in May 2022 to request a 25% reimbursement. It has since been approved.

In Kumer and Bell’s telling, it was approved because it brings much of the jail up to standard. Those standards are spelled out in Virginia Code 6VAC15-81.

At the Feb. 29 forum, Charlottesville city councilor Natalie Oschrin asked for more clarity on the reimbursement policy.

The jail’s program manager, Bill Downey, took the question and referred to one of the alternative proposals.

“Option 1a is a heavy system replacement for mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. It doesn’t do a lot architecturally. It does nothing to bring the facility into current standards. You’re going to get zero [reimbursement] in my opinion,” Downey said.

A section of the Virginia Code, however, says that while any new construction must be up to current standards, older parts of the facility do not.

According to Section 40, a renovation does not require “the existing portion of the facility to comply with all requirements of this chapter.”

In other words, outdated portions of the jail would not need to be brought up to current standards for the proposal to be reimbursed.

It appears to stand in contrast to Downey’s prediction, as well as Kumer’s previous assessment that the board is more likely to offer full reimbursement if it perceives “sincere intent” to bring a jail fully up to standard.

Asked recently to further clarify the reimbursement approval process, Kumer wrote, “It is both an objective and subjective analysis based on the totality of the project.”

The Daily Progress reached out to Geoff Garner, executive director for the Board of Local and Regional Jails, about how the board determines which projects are eligible.

“One aspect of the review process is determining the amount for planned reimbursement, which is 25% of the approved project cost estimate. Staff then present the results of the review to the Board, and the Board either approves or disallows the project,” Garner wrote in an email.

Asked for further details, Garner said he had already spent significant time addressing questions and would no longer be responding to inquiries. Further information would have to be obtained by submitting public records requests, he said.

The Daily Progress then reached out to individual members of the board. Soon after, Garner asked that those board members not be contacted.

“They have been instructed not to respond to media inquiries,” he said of the public body.

That includes David Hackworth, who is both a board member and the director of strategic development at Moseley Architects. Public documents show that Hackworth was one of several contractors who attended a meeting at the jail last September, before the jail had selected Moseley to execute the project. Hackworth had been appointed to the board by Gov. Glenn Youngkin one month earlier.

Michael Carrera has been on the board for two years. Even if a jail simply wanted to add security cameras, that proposal would receive the reimbursement, he said.

“My understanding is, let’s say they want to do an HVAC upgrade or improvement of windows or they want to replace doors,” Carrera told The Daily Progress. “As long as they apply, they bring the application and it follows guidelines, they’ll get an approval up to 25%.”

During his tenure, every project he remembers being approved he also remembers being approved for the full 25% reimbursement.

For the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail renovation, only Option 3 was submitted to the board for approval. While there is no rule prohibiting a jail from submitting multiple proposals simultaneously, a significant amount of work must go into a proposal for it to be considered.

There is no record of the other alternatives — either options 1, 1a or 2 — being mentioned prior to last October. They were not viewed by the public until the first community forum, which occurred in late January.

Carrera has visited more than 57 local regional jails, including Charlottesville’s. He remembers it being old but clean, and that management was at least trying to make it a better environment, unlike other facilities he’s toured.

“My recommendation would probably be to modernize and go ahead with an expansion. I would even suggest doing a full rebuild, but I know that’s expensive,” he said.

The jail has received minimal updates since it was built in 1975, and Kumer says Option 3 would improve conditions for inmates and staff alike.

“My job is to make sure that place is safe and humane and meets the needs of the city, the staff and the men and women who live there,” Kumer said at the final community forum.

Critics feel that they have been force fed Option 3 and that the alternatives have not received as much consideration.

A flyer promoting the second community forum says that the session will be an opportunity to review the architectural design options. The first option is, “intended to address minimal deficiencies” while the second will “address major deficiencies.” The flyer notes that Option 3 comes with a 25% reimbursement.

Each forum included a slideshow presentation, and each presentation noted that Option 3 includes a reimbursement. But it was not until the final forum, held last Thursday, that the slideshow was updated to include how much money would be saved if the alternatives also received that reimbursement.

Bell has previously said that his team “will fight tooth and nail” to get the 25% reimbursement on the alternatives that haven’t yet been approved.

But getting to that point will take some time and resources, time that has already been invested in Option 3.

On March 14, the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail’s board is set to vote on which option to pursue. There already appears to be support for Option 3, as well as the reimbursement that comes with it. If the board were to select one of the alternatives, it would be asking Kumer and Bell to spend more time to present that option to the state board, even as they have cast doubt that those alternatives would receive the full 25%.

After the jail’s board makes its selection, it must also be approved by the governing bodies of the three jurisdictions the jail services: the city of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and Nelson County.

Albemarle County will be responsible for 45.39% of the costs, while the city of Charlottesville will cover 39.87% and Nelson County 14.74%.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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