How does a broke W.Va. county pay its million-dollar jail bill?

By Brad McElhinny in News | September 18, 2016 at 7:05AM
WEBSTER SPRINGS, W.Va. — This month, the state Regional Jail Authority was owed $3.7 million by West Virginia counties that had fallen behind on their jail bills.

Of that, two counties made up almost the entire amount.

Webster County, which hadn’t paid in more than a year, owed $1.48 million. The other chief debtor was Cabell County, which owed $1.47 million.

Cabell is bogged down in a lawsuit by five of its own elected officials who dispute countywide budget cuts. So the jail authority is waiting to see if that situation is sorted out.

The Central Regional Jail houses inmates from Braxton, Calhoun, Clay, Gilmer, Lewis, Nicholas, Roane and Webster counties.
Webster County’s situation went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled this past week that the county has to pay up. Webster County has to work out a payment plan with state jail officials, justices wrote.

“The fiscal situation in this state is tough,” said Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which oversees the regional jail system. “We sympathize.”

But that doesn’t mean Webster County is off the hook.

How Webster County got in such a pickle is what puzzles Messina and other observers.

The county, like many others in West Virginia, has experienced a steep decline in its severance tax revenue as the coal industry has bottomed out. That puts Webster County on equally treacherous footing with many other struggling counties, including those in West Virginia’s southern coalfields.

Neighboring Nicholas County, which was wrestling with its own jail bill a year ago, made significant budget cuts, including layoffs in the sheriff’s department and pay cuts among county employees.

Nicholas County put together a payment plan to catch up with its jail bill, which maxed out at $503,536 in June 2015 — about a third what Webster and Cabell counties owe.

“They worked with us, and before the end of 2015 they had caught up,” Messina said. “They figured out what was within their budget to pay in addition to their ongoing costs.”

West Virginia counties, which used to have their own county jails, pay a per diem of $48.25 to house prisoners in regional jails. Webster and Nicholas Counties — along with Braxton, Calhoun, Clay, Gilmer, Lewis, Roane and Webster counties — are served by the Central Regional Jail in Flatwoods.

Webster County started sputtering on regular payments in mid-2012, Messina said.

“They stopped paying what was due before you saw the downturn in severance tax revenue.”

Positions and services already have been cut at the Webster County Courthouse, but now the county must tighten its belt some more to pay off its jail bill.
Webster County’s financial situation has been crushing, said Ann Carpenter, who joined the county commission in 2014 to fill an unexpired term.

“In the month of May we took in $18,000, and our payroll is $100,000,” Carpenter said. “We’re in pretty dire straits.”

Two factors have fueled the problem, she said. One is the loss of the coal industry that once contributed to the county’s economy. The other is the rise of methamphetamine addiction.

“For such a small county, we just have an overwhelming amount of meth labs, and that’s what shot our jail bill up so high,” Carpenter said.

The first monthly jail bill in the string of missed payments was $80,000, she said. That started a slide that continued as county officials struggled to take care of basic governmental duties.

“Our statutory obligation is to fund the courthouse. Keep the lights on,” Carpenter said. “We have struggled to do that.”

County leaders have stopped giving money to local libraries, to little leagues, to Main Street organizational support of local businesses. Carpenter said a plaque was given to Main Street to recognize recent success, “and I paid for that myself.”

At one point, when a county custodian had quit, Carpenter’s fellow commissioner Jerry Hamrick took over mowing the grass himself. He took out the trash, too.

“We have cut like eight employees basically in the past year,” Carpenter said. “A couple were fired, a couple retired. We instituted a hiring freeze. We’ve lost at least one employee through every office.”

Carpenter wonders if paying back the Regional Jail Authority is even possible.

“I honestly think, just say we didn’t owe RJA a dime, I don’t think we could keep up with the jail bill coming in now.”

Webster County’s problems might not have snowballed if it had taken earlier action, said Chuck Armentrout, who served as a county commissioner for 16 years. When Armentrout resigned in 2014 to focus on his work as superintendent of the coal mine where he worked, Carpenter filled his unexpired term.

Armentrout said county leaders could see the severance tax dwindling as area mines struggled to stay open. He agreed that the meth epidemic erupted at the same time, with newly-elected magistrates assigning more and more people jail time.

He said county leaders pushed for alternatives sentencing, hoping to keep the jail bill down.

“We didn’t want the hardened criminals out there, but we wanted folks out who could be on home confinement to lower the jail bill.”

Armentrout said he also pushed for county budget cuts in 2015 amounting to 8 and half percent. Some county employees would have had to take furloughs but jobs would have been spared. He said a 1 percent cut wound up being the outcome. Armentrout left the commission a few months after that.

“All of the elected officers are in this basket together,” he said.

In the county courthouse, Assessor Max Cochran keeps seeing the tax base dwindle and dwindle and dwindle. Last year, he said, the county lost $10 million in personal property value because people were picking up and leaving.

Last week, he said, $350,000 in personal property taxes still hadn’t trickled into the county when they should have.

His office has tightened its belt, losing one employee and adhering to a hiring freeze.

Cochran, too, doubts the county’s ability to pay the jail bill.

“I really don’t know how they can pay it,” he said. “We have no business. There’s no industry at all since mining is out.”

He sees the other side, too.

“I understand the jail authority 100 percent,” Cochran said. “They need the money. It is tough.”

State Sen. Robert Karnes, a Republican who represents Webster County, contends counties need more say-so in the jail authority’s policies.

“The regional jails fill a need, but the proper way to govern would be for counties appointing members of the board. Give the counties a voice,” Karnes said. Under that scenario, Karnes envisions the governor appointing the regional jail board president.

Messina, the spokesman for the jail authority, noted that three of the five voting members of the Regional Jail Authority’s governing board represent counties, although state law says they are to be appointed by the governor. (The other two are citizens who represent the areas of law and medicine.)

Messina says allowing counties to run up debt presents a policy consistency problem with the agency.

“A point we’re making is that those who will suffer are the law abiding counties,” he said.

If some counties are allowed to get by without paying their bills, costs would naturally rise for the counties who do pay.

“It puts pressure on the board of the Regional Jail Authority to increase the per diem,” Messina said. “We’ve made a concerted effort to keep expenses as low as possible.”