Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 13, 2013

Regional jail

Counties should share in surplus

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — Word last week of a $24 million surplus amassed by the Regional Jail Authority is prompting concern — and rightfully so — among local county governments who are still struggling to pay massive regional jail bills each month in order to keep their inmates incarcerated.

For example, the Mercer County Commission currently owes the regional jail system close to $800,000, a staggering debt that is impacting the ability of the county to undertake other needed projects and services, according to commission president Mike Vinciguerra.

The county is currently paying between $140,000 to $150,000 a month to house local inmates  in the regional system. In fact, it currently costs Mercer County $48.80 a day to house a prisoner in the regional system.

Vinciguerra, along with commissioner Gene Buckner, correctly note that any reduction in the amount of money the individual counties have to pay the regional system would be helpful.

“That’s a big drain on our county,” Vinciguerra said last week. “It limits us with what we can do with other things.”

Buckner correctly notes that the surplus the regional jail system has collected is money that comes from the individual counties such as Mercer. “It they got that much money left over, surely they could cut the money (paid for services) down.”

We agree. The red flag was raised last week by Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, who questioned why the Regional Jail Authority was sitting on a $24 million surplus at a time when individual counties are struggling to pay the regional jail bills.

Laird, a four-time sheriff from Fayette County, said he learned of the surplus funding from Regional Jail Authority Director Joe DeLong.

“Obviously, if the regional jails are accumulating a surplus, the per diem is generating more revenue than the cost of operations, which would be some real concern to local units of government,” DeLong told the Register-Herald in Beckley.

If the jail authority has that large of a surplus on hand, Laird correctly notes that it may be time for the agency to consider lowering the per diem rate.

“They aren’t there to generate surpluses or make money,” Laird said last week. “The per diem is intended to offset the costs of their operation.”

In light of the surprising $24 million surplus, area lawmakers, and county commissioners, should demand that the per diem rate currently being charged to the participating counties be lowered.

The regional jail bill has long been a burdensome drain on the budgets of local counties, including Mercer and McDowell. If the Regional Jail Authority is sitting on a giant pile of surplus cash, area counties should be sharing in this good fortune with lower rates for keeping inmates in the regional system.

Keeping regional jail rates high at a time when the authority itself is amassing a giant surplus is simply unacceptable.