Jail rate cut to equal big savings
West Virginia counties stand to save at least $516,000 annually once a 55-cent-a-day cut in the state's regional jail per diem takes effect next year.
The state Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority Board unanimously approved the rate reduction during its quarterly meeting in Charleston Thursday.
Whenever someone is sent to jail, the Regional Jail Authority bills some entity - be it a city, county, or state government - a daily charge for housing that inmate.
The current rate is $48.80 a day. Beginning July 1, 2013, that rate will drop to $48.25.
Counties and state agencies could save nearly $900,000 as a result of the cut.
"It will put $516,000 back into the pockets of the counties, and $381,000 back into the pocket of the state of West Virginia and the (Division of Corrections) by reducing that per diem 55 cents-per-day," said Joe DeLong, director of the Regional Jail Authority.
It's welcome news for local officials across the state.
With tight budgets and growing jail populations, counties have been pushing hard to find a way to bring their jail bills down.
Braxton County Commissioner Gary Ellyson, a member of the Regional Jail Authority board, said his county's jail bill rose 58 percent between 2010 and 2012. Board chairman and Wood County Sheriff Jeff Sandy said his county's jail bill went up from $1.6 to $2 million over the same time frame.
Kanawha County has budgeted about $5 million for jail payments this year. Officials estimate the rate change will trim at least $56,000 in costs from the county's 2014 budget.
"This is welcome relief," County Commission President Kent Carper said.
Carper said the rate cut isn't just a good thing for county governments, but for local taxpayers.
"It's a tax cut," Carper said. "Why do I say it's a tax cut? Because, in the end, who eventually pays the jail bills: the taxpayers. And now this is less money that they're going to have to pay."
While the reduction is a good thing, the board did use a loose interpretation of state laws to calculate the new rate.
Regional Jail Authority director Joe DeLong said under state code, the jail authority is supposed to take its yearly estimated operating costs and divide it by the average number of inmates from the prior year to come up with the per diem rate.
But DeLong said that formula presents two problems.
The first is that it does not account for growth in the jail population. Over the 2012 budget year, regional jails averaged over 4,600 inmates. Today, population totals are pushing 5,000.
Also, the formula does not take into account millions of dollars in revenue jails receive through commissary and other operations, as well as court fees collected from various counties.
DeLong said if the board strictly followed formula explained in statute, instead of lowering rates to $48.25, they would have had to raise the rate sharply to $51.62.
Not only would that be bad for counties and give the authority far more revenue than it needs, but DeLong said the surplus revenue would also violate other state laws limiting how much excess revenue the authority is allowed to keep.
"I don't see any reason for us to be building up cash reserves that, quite frankly, we are not supposed to have and that we don't need," he said.
DeLong said jail officials were "intentionally conservative" in crafting the new rate. While they included all of the other revenue to craft the formula, they still used prior year inmate totals to craft the rate.
With growing population and other cost-saving programs currently under way, DeLong said he believed the authority could lower the rate again next year.
"I really believe we're really going to be sitting in a room similar to this a year from now and that 55 cents per day reduction is going to be more as we continue in our efforts," he said.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.