(02/12/2005)
Rising regional jail costs have counties across the state in a financial crunch, and county officials are asking the Legislature for some kind of relief.

Kanawha County commissioner Kent Carper said "This really is a crisis. We just shouldn't have to pay a $4 million jail bill."

Calhoun Commission President Larry McCallister said "You get worried when the wolf is at the door. Here, it's through the door," referring to the county's jail bill, which is threatening the county's financial survival.

The county has a shortfall that is estimated between $70,000 and $100,000, which overlays a cash flow problem.

McCallister said "That's a lot of money for us."

"The commissions job is to keep the county solvent," he said.

"It seems like a terrible thing to cut services, health insurance, jobs and bankrupt the county to keep prisoners in jail," said McCallister.

The commission has already cut on-again, off-again health benefits to all elected officials, benefits which nearly all officials have in the other counties. Lay-offs have begun.

The jail bill has recently gone as high as $20,000 a month. In 2003 jail costs were $65,070. In 2004 it jumped $80,000, up to $145,622.

County commissioners have said the issue is not about the need to put individuals in jail, it is how to pay the dollar hungry system.

Additionally, the county is cash-strapped because of numerous state mandates requiring cash.

He indicated that home confinement and other alternative options have been followed by the county. There is a current alternative sentencing program being proposed within the judicial district, which would likely end Calhoun's home confinement program and the revenue it creates.

Calhoun has one of the lowest operating budgets in the state, about $750,000. Grant programs and pass-throughs that are inserted into the budget, push it over a million dollars.

"At the current rate, we could be spending up to one-third of our actual budget on the jail bill," McCallister said.

Small rural counties with stagnant tax bases are inching toward insolvency.

"Even the cost of the county's liability insurance policy has doubled to about $70,000," said McCallister.

Cabell County is facing a $2 million dollar jail bill by June 30.

Berkeley County officials have also complained that jail costs draining their budget.

Vivian Parsons, executive director of the County Commissioners' Association of West Virginia, said regional jail costs are one of the top three issues on her organization's legislative agenda.

McCallister has been with the Commissioner's Association at a legislative briefing in Charleston this week.

"We are going to be seeking a proposal to take to the Legislature," Parsons said. "We want to do our part."

Steve Canterbury, executive director of the Regional Jail Authority, said the two main reasons for the increases are "galloping, inflationary medical costs" and legislatively mandated raises for correctional officers, whose salaries are only about $20,000 a year.

The commission has been discussing the financial crisis, and is expected to take further action shortly.


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