REGIONAL JAIL BILLS HIT COUNTIES WITH LOW TAX BASES - Keeping Afloat Challenging, "Not Enough Money To Budget A Light Bulb"

By Bob Weaver

Dozens of West Virginia counties have had trouble with jail costs rising beyond their means during the past 25 years.

Calhoun has had major problems over the years with a low tax base, and has faced inordinate problems, sometimes nearing a crisis.

The challenge to counties is keeping them afloat.

Despite few employees to operate county offices, some years back the Calhoun Commission dutifully cut employees to the bone, helping the county budget.

Calhoun now owes over $500,000.

"Sometimes we don't have the money to budget a light bulb," said Commissioner Kevin Helmick, who holds a degree in business administration.

Helmick said that jail costs consume about 1/3 of the total county budget, and projected revenue from a compressor station in Calhoun, because of gas/oil production numbers being down, that tax income could bring less relief.

"We had the bill paid off last year," he said.

Meanwhile, West Virginia is incarcerating more people than its regional jail system is meant to hold, and it is costing some county governments more money than they can pay.

At least 10 counties, including Calhoun, are more than 90 days past due on a combined $9 million in jail bills, according to the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security.

From 2000 to 2019, West Virginia’s jail population increased by 81% according to a report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Most studies, among developed countries, the USA leads them in locking more people up.

Quenton King said, “As counties look for ways to pay for needed investments in public services that could aid residents and businesses, there are few discussions about reducing the jail population despite the rising costs of incarceration.”

That is paired with dwindling coal severance revenue in West Virginia, which county commissioners said they use, at least in part, to pay their jail bills.

West Virginia counties that owe more than $1,000 and were more than 90 days past due on their jail bills as of Jan. 15:

Webster County, $2,712,106<
Lincoln County, $1,813, 735
Clay County, $1,236,754
Logan County, $1,218,795
McDowell County, $1,149,556
Calhoun County, $522,998
Mingo County, $358,401
Monroe County, $77,550
Ritchie County, $21,037
Marshall County, $5,645

“You’ve got to decide, ‘Well, do I pay for the gas we got this month, or do I pay the electric bill?’” said Webster County Commission President Dale Hall. “So, you pay the electric bill to keep your lights on, and you work with your gas vendor and say, ‘Hey, we’ll give you half this month, and we’ll try to catch up on the next month.’ ... You can’t even plan on paying anything outside of what’s keeping our lights on.”

In 2016, the West Virginia Supreme Court ordered Webster County to come up with a payment plan for what was then a $1.5 million past-due bill. By Jan. 15, the debt was $2,712,106, according to a list of counties with past-due jail bills provided by state Homeland Security.

That amount almost equals the county’s $2,744,946 annual operating budget, Hall said.

“We’ll send them what we can when we got it,” Hall said. “It’s not a whole lot. It doesn’t help diminish it because it’s growing a lot faster than what we can pay on it, but we do send what we can when we can.”

Counties are charged a daily flat rate of $48.25 per inmate.

Counties annually are paying five figures to keep an inmate locked up who could have been bailed out for $500 or less, commissioners said.

Clay County Commission President Fran King cited a case of a man caught with marijuana who could have been bailed out for $50 but wound up costing the county nearly that much for each day of eight months in jail.

Counties that fall more than 90 days past due become ineligible to receive money from the Regional Jails Partial Reimbursement Fund, which the legislature established in 2005 to offset the cost of incarceration.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” King said. “If you can’t pay it, then the state is not going to help you pay it, yet they still want us to take care of our criminal justice system and get criminals off the street. Then, we’re punished because we don’t have adequate funding to pay our jail bill.”

County commissioners said legislative efforts have come up short in getting municipal and state police to use some of their budget money to help cover the cost of incarcerating the people they arrest.

Several years ago, WV legislators placed a constitutional amendment on a statewide ballot to consolidate counties to reduce costs, likely ending with about 12 counties. It failed.

Several national studies show that consolidations rarely if ever have reduced costs.