‘Growing pains’ without growing revenue present challenges for county

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: March 11, 2019 | 3:30 p.m.

Increased jail costs saps much of county’s extra revenue

PRINCE GEORGE – Last week, supervisors were able to see County Administrator Percy Ashcraft’s proposed budget for the first time and, among the charts, tables, and graphs was a section entitled “Growing Pains,” which told the story of how increased demands on services can impact the county’s bottom line and what’s being done to maximize taxpayer dollars.

While Ashcraft touted many of the accolades the county had received over the current fiscal year, which encompassed a number of slides during his presentation, he was frank in his discussion of some of the challenges the county has had as they deal with “a combination of population influx and services that are expected to meet modern needs,” with no areas of county government being spared from the pressures. 

Some of the most telling numbers presented by Ashcraft came in the areas of law enforcement, public safety, social services, and judicial services as many of those areas saw stark increases during 2018.

In the realm of law enforcement, according to data presented by Ashcraft, the number of “Crimes Against Society,” which the Federal Bureau of Investigations defines as “society’s prohibition against engaging in certain types of activity,” like gambling, prostitution, and drug violations, rose by 27 percent in 2018. In addition, the number of arrests rose by over a third in 2018, with the number of total traffic stops and accidents worked by local police rising to roughly 20 percent respectively. 

Those arrest numbers somewhat tie into what has been seen at Riverside Regional Jail as the number of inmates the jail is housing from Prince George County has risen by nearly 40 inmates from this same time last year, resulting in a significant increase to the county’s required contribution to the jail, something that is being felt both in the current-year and Ashcraft’s proposed budget for the 2020 fiscal year. According to the county administrator, the increase in local inmates is only part of the story.

“Prince George County is sending more prisoners there daily at a rate of 39 more per day than we did this time last year,” he said “When you multiply our per diem, which is $40 per day, times 39 extra prisoners, you are seeing a major increase in the budget that we are currently in, not just the one that we are looking ahead for.” 

He added, Chesterfield County cutting back their number of inmates by “approximately 200 inmates” has “put a real strain on the jail’s ability to operate,” resulting in the jail’s governing body meeting last week to decide if they will raise the per diem from $40 to $43 per day. 

Within Ashcraft’s proposed FY2020 budget, the county’s contribution has risen by over $676,000, an increase of 50 percent when compared to the previous year.

That spike in costs for housing inmates at the jail served to nerf much of the county’s extra revenue that came from an expected modest rise in real estate revenue of roughly $760,000.

“That took away any discretionary money that we had to do some other things in this budget and I clearly say that in our message to the Board,” Ashcraft said. “That $676,886 represents just how much less money we had to do some of the things that we were hoping to do.”

Of any items in the county administrator’s proposed budget, mandated CSA contributions and inmate housing costs at Riverside Regional Jail, seen above, have evaporated much of the county’s extra revenue in the coming year. (Riverside Regional Jail)

He added, “Another problem is that the state doesn’t move them out of Riverside soon enough after the sentencing has been completed. So we continue to pay for prisoners after we are essentially done with them and that has been something we have talked with our legislative representatives for years about but, you know the state system sometimes gets crowded and they can’t move people around as quickly as they would like.”

As costs continue to rise and the county continues to grow, so too does demand for services in the county, with fire and EMS among those seeing increases in their activities. According to county figures, in 2018, local first responders handled over 3,300 calls that required one or more EMS unit, and the number of activations per fire companies increased by 21 percent. 

In addition, the county’s social services department served an average of 4,670 participants in some form and, on the judicial services side, the total number of criminal cases was 1,060 in 2018, an increase of nearly 33 percent, with each of the county’s courts, General, Circuit, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations, all seeing increases in traffic. 

When looked at collectively, Ashcraft explained the increases all represent people, time, and resources, which do cost money.

“Government costs money to operate and that is why I titled it ‘growing pains’ because we are in growing pains in about every area of government,” he said, adding, “I am not saying this budget doesn’t address some of that but it doesn’t address them to the rate that people expect us to deliver services.”

The county has lost some important revenue recently following the closure of ACE Hardware’s facility in the county as the county lost business furniture and fixture tax revenue, something Ashcraft said they are working actively to address.

“We are going to try to be more aggressive in the economic development area,” he said. “We are working with our regional and state economic people. Every lead we get we take seriously. We do our best to show our properties to the extent that we can provide local incentives and we try to offer what we can, but it is very competitive,” adding ongoing expansions of utilities along U.S. Route 460 and Route 156 could serve to bolster the county’s economic development prospects in that portion of the county.

“The Board has been aggressive with the utilities and those two new projects and I think when the Route 156 and U.S. Route 460 projects are completed, you will see a lot of growth coming up along those corridors where those water lines are going to be built – two separate projects that are going parallel with each other,” Ashcraft explained. 

As the budget process gets underway following his presentation, the county administrator is optimistic about the county’s prospects, but he noted the county’s leadership will be tasked with more forward-thinking planning during the process.

“We will get through this year but there will be some advanced budget planning that this board has never been involved in before to get a handle on where we are going in the future,” he said. 

The county will hold its first work session on Thursday, March 7, where supervisors are expected to decide on the tax rate, with a public hearing on that tax rate likely to occur on April 9. 

The budget is tentatively expected to be adopted on May 14 following an April 23rd public hearing. By state law, the budget cannot be adopted the same day as the public hearing, as a minimum of seven days must pass between the hearing and its adoption.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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