As we all debate the cost and necessity of a new middle school, one topic dominates the conversation- tax increase. So I went to look at the Pulaski County Budget, to find out what exactly we’re spending money on and perused the 2015-2016 (latest available) Budget Expenditure Summary.
One thing stuck out at me while scrolling through the seven pages. In fiscal year 2015-2016 we expected to spend over $2.3 million on the NRV Regional Jail. That’s paid out of just under $40 million in locally controlled revenue. Pulaski County is spending just about 5.75% of our local revenues on keeping people in jail and it’s one of the largest line items in the expenditure summary, after the obvious costs like schools and the sheriff’s department. Currently, we spend about $3 million per year paying off school debt for all of our schools (including Pulaski and Riverlawn elementary schools). As a comparison Wythe County pays about $1.5 million to the NRV Jail in the same period on budgeted revenues of about $35 million, about 4.5% of their budget, while spending $2.8 million paying off their debt.
While the county has implemented a Drug Court in 2015 to deal with some of the issues related to substance abuse and crime, I haven’t been able to find any follow-up figures to show if the program has been effective at avoiding further offenses. What I do know is that many inmates throughout the country are routinely put in jail due to minor criminal offenses that are either directly drug related (i.e. possession of a controlled substance) or indirectly (theft in order to support the addiction).
If we are worried about the costs of building a new school, we should look beyond the school budget and to the totality of our spending as a community. If we can provide alternatives to incarceration that lower our jail population our budget will not only have more space for building schools, but also likely increase as we see greater economic activity from those formerly incarcerated. Virginia, statewide, has a very high rate of incarceration compared to those released on community supervision so the solutions may require work beyond the county. In addition, over 60% of inmates in local jails typically dropped out of high school, so providing better educational opportunities may itself lead to a drop in the jail population.
One other thing that I learned when reading up on the NRV Regional Jail, it has a huge solar power unit which has the equivalent of 272 kw of solar power generation. This offsets about 2.5 million gallons of hot water, and decreases use of natural gas by 30%. The project cost about $800,000, of which about half came in a grant from federal and state agencies. I hope our county elected officials can see the value in planning for the long term with our students as well as our incarcerated neighbors.
I hope to update you all on some more investigations I’m doing on the county budget in the near future.