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Gov. repeats frustration over jails staffing

Gov. Jim Justice, who declared a staffing emergency in West Virginia’s corrections system last August, repeated this week a statement suggesting futility in working with legislators to address the problem.

“I twice have sent bills up in regard to locality pay for our corrections officers. We didn’t get it done,” Justice said during a broad-ranging briefing.

The issue with corrections staffing continues to linger, with a vacancies level at 1,022, according to the most recent update to lawmakers. That’s a 27% vacancy rate for corrections workers across the jails system.

The problem is not just in particular regions — in a way that could be addressed by locality pay.

Although the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg is the highest at about 70%, officials said, correctional facilities all over the state have significant vacancies.

Eight facilities have 40% vacancies or more.

Those include Western Regional Jail in Barboursville, Potomac Highlands Regional Jail in Augusta, Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville, Huttonsville Correctional Center, the Vickie Douglas Juvenile Center in Martinsburg, the J.M. Chick Buckbee Juvenile Center in Augusta and the Mount Olive Correctional Center.

More than 300 members of the National Guard are assisting in support roles in the jails, a result of the emergency declaration.

During the regular legislative session, lawmakers considered but did not complete passage of at least two bills boosting pay for jail workers. Justice called for better pay for jail workers in high-cost areas during his State of the State speech, but otherwise didn’t publicly push. Since then, the governor has acted puzzled about why legislators didn’t act.

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, this week said lawmakers will need guidance from the executive branch to address the staffing issue.

“There seems to be consensus around the conclusion that, at a minimum, a salary increase is needed there,” Hanshaw said Wednesday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” “But the broader issue that we’re tackling now is, is a greater structural change in order for how we staff those facilities.

“And we really are anxiously awaiting an opportunity to confer with the executive branch on this and hear the executive’s proposal on exactly how we would respond to what their needs are. They’re in those facilities every single day. We have the opportunity as legislators to hear from them periodically. But we’re not on the ground every day the way our colleagues in the executive branch are.”

Hanshaw said lawmakers are prepared to respond to proposals, but he isn’t certain a pay increase should be the only approach.

“For example, the workers in those facilities are classified differently for a variety of purposes than our law enforcement officers. So one of the questions that some of our members are asking now is, well, should they be classified the same for purposes of retirement benefits and time and tenure in state service and the benefits that go along with that?

“Should they be classified the same as, say, members of our State Police force? That’s one of the structural questions that members are asking right now in addition to simply what should take-home compensation be.”

The Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority is scheduled to meet again next week during interim meetings in Huntington.

Delegate David Kelly, chairman of the House’s jails committee, has continued to discuss what options would most help staffing levels in jails. “We’re still putting it on the front burner, and we’re still trying to come up with a pathway forward,” Kelly, R-Tyler, said on “Talkline” last month.

Delegate Joey Garcia, the ranking Democrat on that committee, has described continued work on what approach might best ease the staffing problem. But Garcia, D-Marion, has also expressed frustration over lack of movement on the issue.