BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Regional Jail bill for fiscal year 2021 was the lowest it’s been since 2016, totaling about $674,500. Yet, with a potential statewide per diem increase looming on the horizon, county officials say a funding alternative must be implemented to preserve the financial stability of counties across the Mountain State.
Upshur County Administrator Carrie Wallace said she has been tracking the regional jail bill – one of the largest expenses the county grapples with as part of its general fund budget – for seven years. She explained that rather than totaling monthly expenses to house inmates from July 1 to June 30 of each fiscal year, she tracks the bill from June 1 to May 31.
“I started tracking it in 2015, so I’ve been tracking it for seven years now,” Wallace said. “The fiscal year that I’m tracking begins in June and ends in May, and that’s because we pay June’s bill in July, so this is according to the bills we pay in every fiscal year’s budget, so rather than running July to June, it’s running June to May.”
Per state law, West Virginia counties are responsible for the cost of housing inmates in the regional jail at a current per diem rate (or per person per day rate) of $48.25. If a person is convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in the state penitentiary, the State of West Virginia – instead of the individual county – foots the bill.
The regional jail bill for fiscal year 2021 amounted to $674,583.24, and Wallace explained the breakdown.
“Our last full fiscal year, FY 21, our total was $697,839.74 and [there were] additional debits of $530, and then we had credits totaling $23,787.25, which gave us a grand total of $674,583.24 in that fiscal year,” she said. “We budgeted $800,000, so we had $125,416.76 left over that basically was absorbed into carryover.”
The FY 2021 regional jail bill was lower than 2020 and hasn’t been this low since 2016. It’s a notable contrast between FY 2019, when the regional jail bill was on track to total more than $900,000.
One factor is a legislative change that mandates the state begin paying for the cost of housing an inmate at the date of conviction, rather than at the date of sentencing. Depending on how booked a court jurisdiction is, days, weeks and sometimes even months may pass from the time a person is convicted until they return to court for a separate sentencing hearing.
“In 2021, the total was $674,583.24, so it was down from 2020, which was $710,336.50, and it was the least it’s been since 2016, which was $609,108,” Wallace said. “We were also down a little bit this year because the state began paying for an inmate at date of conviction, rather than date of sentencing on July 1, 2019. Before it used to be, we paid through the sentencing date, and of course, sometimes there’s a major delay between the end of the trial and the sentencing date.”
Wallace also calculated the number of days the county paid for each month in 2021, which totaled 14,315.
“I don’t plan to calculate this every year,” Wallace said. “I added it in this year because House Bill 4338 capped the per diem at the $48.25 through July 1 of 2021, and that was set to expire, and I wanted to find out the difference in cost if the per diem was increased.”
As the date marking the end of the cap on the $48.25 per diem approached, there were talks of the per diem rate increasing from $48.25 to $54.88, but that increase never came to fruition. In June, the West Virginia Legislature voted to hold off on the increase until 2022 with the passage of Senate Bill 2023.
Despite the freeze on a per diem increase, Wallace calculated how much that increase would cost the county if it was implemented in 2021.
“If that $54.88 goes into effect, what would the additional cost Upshur County be if, let’s say if FY 22 is the same as FY 21? We would have paid nearly $88,000 more with that increase – that was huge – and that’s big for us as a small county, but then you get to looking at counties like Kanawha, and it would be millions of dollars,” Wallace said.
A statement from Wallace said the commission would like to see other governmental bodies assist the county in paying the regional jail by covering the cost of housing inmates their law enforcement agencies arrest.
“The Commission has accepted that the Regional Jail bill expense is a necessary evil. [The commissioners] fully support the judicial staff, prosecuting attorney’s office and all law enforcement agencies and respect the dangerous jobs they are tasked with in order to protect the residents of Upshur County,” Wallace’s statement reads.
“However, the county’s budget shoulders the liability of this major expense, totaling nearly $5 million over the last seven fiscal years,” it continues. “If a WV state trooper or a City of Buckhannon police officer arrest an individual within Upshur County, including the municipal limits, the county foots the bill. An equitable funding alternative wherein the government body that employs the arresting agencies pay the per diem rates for individuals they arrest must be established to ensure financial stability in the future for all counties across the state.”