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Senate passes bill to address jail-funding problem

Senators passed a bill affecting the longstanding problem of regional jail bill costs.

Senate Bill 596 sets a per day inmate base rate and establishes a formula for calculating fees. In some circumstances, it would allow a reduced rate or higher rates in others. Every 10 years, the rate could be recalculated.

The bill passed, 22-11.

“The purpose of this bill is to resolve the jail funding issue that the Legislature has grappled with the past few years,” Senate Finance Chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said on the passage vote.

Some West Virginia counties have fallen far behind on being able to pay regional jail fees.

“This section of code clearly states that counties bear the responsibility for inmate housing and care,” Tarr said. “When a county fails to pay for inmate housing, this bill would codify that liability on both an official level and a personal level.”

Senators debated and then rejected an amendment that would have prioritized fees in reverse chronological order, to the most-recent bills first and the oldest bills last.

That amendment would have provided some exceptions for personal accountability by county commissioners. A county commissioner would not be held personally liable for fees that mounted before their time in office. And if a county could not pay because of other statutory or constitutional obligations then the county commissioner would not be held personally liable.

Tarr advised against adopting the amendment. “This allows the county commission to set up a perpetual loop of not paying jail bills in arrears,” he said. “We have about five counties right now that are significantly behind on their jail bill.”

Right now, he said, county commissioners have a duty to work toward keeping jail bills low or paid down.

He said the final section of the bill itself allows counties to establish a payment plan that should serve as a means and incentive to get mounting bills under control.

“There’s been counties that have done that and are doing that in West Virginia,” he said. “The amendment would completely remove any liability for those commissioners for honoring that debt.”

Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, spoke in support of the amendment. He cited Webster County, which is in the district he serves, saying economic turmoil for timber and coal hurt the county’s finances.

“Over the years, it’s built up a debt of $3 million,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got commissioners doing everything they can; they’re keeping up with their current payments for regional jails, but they’re doing everything to cut where they can and still fulfill their constitutional responsibilities for what they’re required to do.

“It’s a problem for Webster County, and I understand there are three or four others that are in the same boat, not quite as deep.”

Sen. Jack Woodrum, R-Summers, opposed the amendment and spoke about his time as a county commissioner. He said the ability to enter into a payment plan protects commissioners from personal liability while acknowledging their responsibility to county finances.

Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, said an enormous jail bill that has already built up could be a disincentive from running for those offices.

“When somebody runs for county commission that already has a massive jail bill and they’re running because they can see the county has problems, they can see the county needs serious help, they should not step into office on day one with a multi-million-dollar liability based on this jail bill,” he said.

The House of Delegates has also been considering a bill that would affect per diem jail costs. The House bill would allow county commissions to seek reimbursement from the state’s larger cities for costs.

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