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Cabell County $2.8M behind in jail bill


The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington

HUNTINGTON – Fiscal year 2017 was a tough year financially for the Cabell County Commission, and while the year may be over, the county is still feeling its effects.

After surviving a lawsuit prompted by budget cuts as well as the unpredictability that comes with being self-insured, the one problem the county has yet to conquer is its jail bill.

At the moment, the county is roughly a year, or $2.8 million, behind on payments to the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority for Cabell County prisoners housed in the Western Regional Jail in Barboursville, according to information provided by the county.

The county is currently charged a rate of $48.25 per day per prisoner.

Cabell is not the only county falling behind on its jail bill, though it is the highest. The other two counties with the highest debt are Webster and Lincoln counties, which owe about $1.68 million and $680,000, respectively, according to data from the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

Lincoln and Cabell counties both feed into the Western Regional Jail, along with Wayne, Mason and Putnam, which do not have jail bills more than 90 days past due.

As of August, 13 counties are more than 90 days past due on the jail bill. The remaining 10 counties owe amounts that range from about $200 to $175,000.

How did it happen?

County Administrator Beth Thompson said Cabell County is in the process of regaining its footing with regards to the jail bill, but estimates it will take at least a year if not more before the county is able to pay off its debt.

The county’s jail bill has caused concern among county officials since the Western Regional Jail opened in late 2003 and the price tag for housing prisoners nearly doubled. When the old county jail was operational, the county spent roughly $2 million on prisoners. Now that price tag is more than $3 million and has been steadily increasing.

Although a rising jail bill is nothing new, Thompson said it was not until last year that their payments toward the jail bill began to lag.

Thompson said the root of the problem can be traced back to the beginning of the 2017 fiscal year, which runs July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017, when the county implemented 10 percent across-the-board budget cuts to offset a predicted drop in revenue as well as expected increases in the jail bill and health insurance.

Those cuts prompted a lawsuit from five of the county’s elected officials, which was settled in March and resulted in the Cabell County Commission adding $60,000 to the prosecuting attorney’s budget.

While this litigation was taking place, Thompson said she contacted the Regional Jail Authority to inform them of the county’s financial troubles and that the county would likely be falling behind on payments.

“The whole time I was sending (the Regional Jail Authority) some money … I wasn’t able to send them a complete month at a time, but I was sending some,” Thompson said. “So as long as they were getting some (money) and they knew that we were trying to work toward a plan, then they were OK with that.”

With the lawsuit now behind the Cabell County Commission, Thompson said she has begun paying two monthly jail bills at a time, the most current one and the one that is the farthest past due.

This month, Thompson said she was able to pay off July 2017 and August 2016, meaning jail bills from September 2016 to June 2017 are still unpaid.

“Hopefully we can kinda get them meeting in the middle at some point and catch up,” she said.

While the county’s yearly jail bill is now well over $3 million, Thompson said this expense is second to the county health insurance plan, which was over $4 million in fiscal year 2017.

However, unlike the jail bill, Thompson said she couldn’t let their insurance bill go unpaid.

“We had to prioritize,” she said. “Where we’re self-insured, there was no way that I could not pay those bills, or people’s claims would not have been paid.”

Over the course of the 2017 fiscal year, Thompson said the county was able to implement some changes in its health insurance, which resulted in savings. For the current fiscal year, which began July 1, 2017, the county is budgeted to spend about $3.94 million for health insurance, a roughly $240,000 drop from the previous year.

What are the solutions?

When it comes to paying off its debt, Thompson said the county is working on several cost-saving solutions, including paying closer attention to its monthly jail bill statement as well as working with the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office on alternative sentencing.

In August, Thompson said she and Prosecuting Attorney Sean “Corky” Hammers met with an accountant from Logan County who reviews the county’s monthly jail bill. Over the course of 12 years, Thompson said the accountant, whose name she did not provide, has been able to save Logan County close to $5 million.

Logan is also one of the 13 counties more than 90 days behind on its jail bill, though its debt is only about $66,000.

In reviewing the jail bill, Thompson said the accountant showed them two strategies that could save money in the long run.

The first is making sure the county is only paying for prisoners who were arrested in Cabell County.

While going through the statement for July, Thompson said they found two prisoners who appear to have been arrested by an agency outside the county and had been in jail for a month, each racking up a bill of $1,495.75.

“If they weren’t arrested in the county, we shouldn’t be paying for them,” Thompson said.

Thomson said the second step will depend heavily on cooperation from the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Since the monthly jail statement allows the county to see how long a person has been in jail, Thomson said the accountant advised them to turn the knowledge of those in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to look into the charges for prisoners housed at the jail for an extended period of time.

Especially in the case when a person is being held on a misdemeanor charge, Thompson said they were advised to have prosecutors approach judges and ask for alternative sentences like home confinement, which would take the prisoner off of the county’s jail bill.

While the county does not want to let dangerous criminals out on the streets, Thompson said she would rely on the judgment of the prosecutors who are familiar with the cases.

Thompson said she also plans to approach the Cabell County Commission about hiring an accountant for the sole purpose of reviewing the monthly jail bills.

“If you spend $15,000 to $20,000 a month but you end up saving $50,000 to $60,000 a month, then that’s well worth it,” she said.

In August, the Cabell County Commission also voted to increase its real property excise tax, which is a recording fee paid in the County Clerk’s Office and is charged when people transfer a deed.

The increase is expected to add about $200,000 to the county’s revenue.

With the county’s average monthly jail bill at $300,000, this increase will not make much of a dent.

Turning to the Legislature

Each year, county officials from across the state approach the West Virginia Legislature, asking them to lighten the burden of the jail bill, but they have been unsuccessful, Thompson said.

During the 2017 regular legislative session, two bills were proposed that could have saved Cabell County about $500,000 a year.

In both bills, legislators proposed that the state of West Virginia foot the cost of housing an inmate in a regional jail beginning the day after the person is convicted of a crime.

Currently, counties are responsible for the cost of housing an inmate in a regional jail after they are convicted and up until they are sentenced to a state prison.

In the end, neither bill was passed.

Thompson said every year they also request that the responsibility of paying for inmates falls to the arresting agencies. At the moment, nearly any person arrested in Cabell County, whether by local municipalities like the Huntington, Barboursville or Milton police departments as well as the Marshall University Police Department, the State Police and state probation officer, is tacked onto the county’s jail bill.

Thompson said the Huntington Police Department is the arresting agency for roughly 70 percent of the prisoners on the county’s monthly bill.

Cabell County Commission President Bob Bailey said this has been a topic of contention for quite some time.

Bailey, like most county officials, feels that each agency should be held responsible for those it arrests.

“That’s the only thing wrong with the jail bill, that the cities and the states are not paying their fair share of the jail bill. They pay nothing,” he said.

Bailey said the county has also approached legislators about changing the amount Cabell County is required to give the public library and park board.

In 1969, Thompson said the Legislature passed a special act that required Cabell County to allocate about $1.5 million to the county libraries and $500,000 to the park board.

“I don’t have anything against giving money to the libraries, but when we’re in this kind of condition and owe the jail bill like we do, I think that we need to look at what we are required to give them,” Thompson said. “That’s $2 million that gets taken off the top right away and could have gone to paying off the jail bill.”

Counties do receive some state aid for jail bills from the Regional Jail Operations Partial Reimbursement Fund.

The fund, which is overseen by the State Treasurer’s Office, is intended to offset the amounts that counties and municipalities pay for housing inmates in the regional jails, according to an email from Lawrence Messina, the director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

Messina said revenues for this fund come from an array of magistrate and circuit court filing fees and assessment from both civil and criminal cases.

He added that those funds are then distributed to the counties based on the number of inmate days each entity was billed.

For example, Cabell County accounted for almost 7 percent of the inmate days billed during fiscal 2017, so it received the same percentage of the fund, or roughly $171,500.

Messina also pointed out even counties, like Cabell, that are behind on their bill receive money from the reimbursement fund.

“This raises the question as to whether this is truly a reimbursement for those past-due counties or the equivalent of free money,” Messina wrote in his email.

Repeating the past

This is not the first time Cabell County has had difficulties paying its jail bill.

During the first full year of paying for prisoners at the Western Regional Jail, fiscal year 2004-05, Cabell County saw a big dip in revenue, which hindered its ability to pay its monthly jail bill.

By the time December 2004 rolled around, which was halfway through the fiscal year, the funds allocated for the jail bill, roughly $1 million, were completely exhausted and the county ceased payments on its monthly jail bill.

This move eventually led to a lawsuit filed by the state Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority against the commission and was dragged out in court for nearly three years.

The case was finally settled in late 2007 when the state Supreme Court ruled Cabell County was responsible for paying unpaid jail bills dating back to 2005, which amounted to roughly $1.8 million.

Follow reporter Josephine Mendez on Twitter @JozyMendezHD.

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