Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 21, 2014

Regional jail bill Still a big problem for Mercer


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — Mercer County’s monthly regional jail bill — estimated at an alarming $420,000 a month and a whopping $1.7 million a year — is still a significant concern. This money that is being expended to house inmates in the regional jail system could certainly be put to better use elsewhere.

That’s why it is imperative for lawmakers to take a second look at the regional jail system. Common sense would dictate that the per diem rate currently being charged to the participating counties should be lowered. After all, no county should be paying $1.7 million a year to house inmates in the regional system.

Mercer County currently pays $48.25 a day to keep an inmate at the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver, according to County Commission President Mike Vinciguerra. While this fee may not seem like a large amount upon first inspection, it multiples quickly with each additional inmate housed at the facility. Vinciguerra estimates that the county’s current jail bill is approximately $420,000.

“We paid $150,000 this week,” he said of the county’s latest payment to the regional jail system. “But the bill that came in for December (2013) was $141,000. Within the last three years, we’ve lowered it from $1 million to $420,000.”

While the commission may be doing a better job of paying and keeping the monthly regional jail bills current, the rates are still simply too high. Mercer County Sheriff Don Meadows says the regional jail system has not turned out to be what was originally presented to the counties years ago before it opened.

In one instance, he recalls the counties being told that deputies would not have to transport suspects to and from the jails to the regional system, but now deputies have to do that on an almost daily basis. He says the counties were also assured that the cost of keeping inmates would not increase. Back then the cost of housing an inmate in the regional system was estimated at $34 a day. That’s a big difference from the $48.25 a day the county is currently paying. “We’re not supposed to be in the prisoner business, but we are,” Meadows correctly notes.

Before the regional jail system opened, Mercer County maintained a jail of its own on the top floor of the Mercer County Courthouse. The county commission once considered the idea of opening a small detainment area in the old jail, but this idea has become cost prohibitive over the years. And most of that space is now used for storage.

The Bluefield City Jail — which can hold up to 16 detainees at one time — is used by law enforcement agencies all across Mercer County. Having the local holding facility is a big help. The city jail itself also recently underwent a series of renovations, including new light fixtures and lavatories that are designed to be tamper proof, according to Bluefield City Manager Jim Ferguson.

But, at the end of the day, the county is still faced with a regional jail bill that is much higher than it should be. Last year, the Regional Jail Authority reported a $24 million surplus — news that correctly raised red flags across the Mountain State. The authority certainly should not be sitting on a large-scale scale surplus when counties such as Mercer are still struggling to pay high regional jail bills.

That’s why we need an exhaustive review of those current rates, and corrective action to provide relief to the counties that continue to struggle with this burdensome budgetary drain.