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Director says court fees not enough to pay debt on jail construction

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The West Virginia Regional Jail Authority has collected less and less money from court fees in recent years, making it increasingly difficult for state jails to pay their construction bond debt.

Joe DeLong, the jail authority's executive director, told members of the Legislature's joint judiciary committee Tuesday morning that the authority no longer collects enough money from court fees to cover its $9 million yearly bond payments.

State jails collected just $7.9 million in court fees last year.

That's down significantly from 2004, when the authority brought in $13 million in court fees. DeLong said the drop began in 2007, when fee income fell to $8.7 million.

"We're no longer collecting enough money to pay the bond obligation," he said.

That is making the state's bond insurers in New York nervous. DeLong said he has spent a lot of time over the last few months, both in person and over the phone, trying to assure the bond insurers that West Virginia will not default on its loans.

He said he does not know why revenue from fees has dropped.

"We know, based off of the overpopulation and overcrowding issues . . . that we certainly have more people coming through the court system now."

The state has $62 million in bond debt for construction projects at jails. All that money is due in 2021, when the bonds are set to mature.

DeLong said if fee collections continue to decline, the state will need to find another revenue source for the jail authority.

The regional jails authority currently is using money it charges counties, the state and the federal government to house inmates to make up for the lost revenue. County and state governments pay the jail system $48.80 per inmate per day. The federal government pays about $56.

DeLong said the authority also is using other revenue streams, like the money it earns from inmates' phone calls and purchases in jail commissaries, to cover bond payments.

"The difference has to be made up somewhere," he said.

Kevin Baker, a lawyer for the judiciary committee, presented a possible quick fix at Tuesday's meeting: a bill that would offer amnesty to people with old tickets.

The legislation would allow anyone with tickets issued before June 2008 to pay $100 to have one ticket wiped off their record and $25 for each additional ticket.

Baker said the law would put drivers back in good standing with the Division of Motor Vehicles and create a quick revenue source for jails.

He said the bill is not finalized but also would allow the state to deduct overdue fees from citizens' tax refund checks.

If the state still hadn't collected its money after three years of tax refunds, the bill would authorize the secretary of administration to hire a debt collector to go after the money.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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