Webster County looks to WV Supreme Court of Appeals for answers

By Linda Harris, Legal Reporter

Visit Webster County during grass-cutting season and you’ll likely see a county commissioner on the mower or emptying the trash at the courthouse.

One of the smallest counties in the state, Webster County has the largest backlog in overdue regional jail fees. Thanks in large part to a surge in methamphetamine arrests since 2011, the county has amassed a $1.3 million jail bill it can’t afford to pay.

The county commissioners say there’s no more belt left to tighten: They’ve already eliminated discretionary spending and jobs. They require employees to pay 20 percent of their health care bills and set personal property levy rates at the maximum allowed. They’ve also exhausted the county’s rainy day fund, and employees and elected officials typically clean their own offices. County officials are now operating on a bare-bones budget and providing only constitutionally mandated services for their shrinking taxpayer base.

Those same officials also are asking the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to consider how, if the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority is adhering to statute and adjusting rates to reflect actual costs, it has been able to amass a near $60 million budget surplus — and why it’s paying for hi-tech conveniences such as computer kiosks for video conferencing for inmate use.

WVRJCFA has petitioned the state Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to force Webster County to pony up the $1.31 million it owes, saying it “cannot simply allow the flat refusal of a county to (pay its bill) to go unchecked after repeated attempts to work together with that county.”

“To do so would place the entire Regional Jail and Correctional Facility system in jeopardy, and do a grave disservice to those counties that diligently find some way to pay — or at least make serious efforts at paying their regional jail bills in the face of ever more stark financial conditions,” WVRJCFA said, pointing out Webster County’s unpaid per diems are “roughly equal to that of all the other counties combined.”

WVRJCFA claims Webster County has “made no progress to meaningfully work to resolve this mounting debt,” currently accruing at the rate of about $40,000 a month. To address the backlog, the state tax commissioner is now withholding tax payments due Webster County and others in arrears, WVRJCFA said.

Crime, punishment

While other counties are reeling from the Mountain State’s heroin epidemic, Webster County Prosecuting Attorney Dwayne C. Vandevender said meth labs have been Webster County’s budget bugaboo.

“The bulk of the arrearage alleged by the (WVRJCFA) accrued during 2013 and 2014 when Webster County was experiencing a devastating increase in methamphetamine production and at a time when the jail bill was averaging approximately $65,000 per month,” he wrote.

In July 2014, Vandevender points out Webster County ranked No. 4 overall in terms of meth lab reports and seizures, trailing only Kanawha (24), Wood (16) and Upshur (15). Webster and Cabell counties each had 13 seizures.

And on a per capita basis, Vandevender said Webster County ranked No. 1 overall in terms of meth lab seizures: With just 8,893 residents, it worked out to one lab for every 684 people living in Webster County in 2014. By comparison No. 2 Upshur County, population 24,665, had one lab for every 1,644 residents; No. 3 Wood County, population 86,569, had one lab for every 5,410 people; No. 4 Cabell County, population 97,133, had one lab for every 7,471 residents; and No. 5 Kanawha County, population 191,275, had one meth lab for every 7,970 residents.

In 2014, Nicholas County grand juries returned 91 felony indictments or informations. Webster County, with about one-third the population of its neighbor, returned 97 felony indictments.

Compounding Webster County’s fiscal woes, he said, is a more than 50 percent dip in coal severance tax revenues from 2010-15 — dropping from nearly $443,000 during fiscal year 2009-10 to just over $216,000 in FY 2014-15. Historically, coal severance money has gone “to help pay the jail bill with remaining amounts being used to fund elections, jury funds and other required activities,” he said.

“In its brief (WVRJCFA) alleges that Webster County has refused to make any accommodations to pay the past due bill and that (we) have not paid the amounts (our) county has owed since at least mid-2012,” Vandevender said. “These assertions are incorrect.

“Since July 2012 Webster County has paid (WVRJCFA) a total of $890,242.11 towards the … bill, with $208,701.29 being paid from July of 2014 through June of 2015 and an additional $62,577.15 being paid since July of 2015.

“Further, as a result of the dramatic increase in crime and the corresponding increase in regional jail costs to the county (WVRJCFA) has taken drastic action over the last four years to adjust the budget for Webster County and make provisions to pay the regional jail bill.”

Among the adjustments:
• Real property is currently being taxed at the maximum allowable levy rates
• In FY 2011-12 WVRJCFA began requiring newly hired county employees and elected officials to pay 10 percent of their insurance premiums.
• The county commission drained its “rainy day” reserve fund in FY 2012-13, and the following year required all county officials and employees to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums.

In addition, commissioners said they shaved slightly more than $216,000 from their budget and made an overall budget reduction of nearly $277,000 in FY 2013-14. The following year they cut another $24,000. Now, only constitutionally-mandated offices are being funded. To date, they’ve also eliminated two full-time jobs through attrition and instituted a hiring freeze. Salaries for the remaining 24 full-time and three part-time employees represent about $586,000 in the FY 2015 budget, commissioners said.

Bending the rules?

In his 24-page brief, Vandevender points out WVRJCFA “seems to be flourishing, despite the statutory requirements that (it) charge daily rates necessary for the operational costs of housing inmates.”

“The West Virginia Legislature conceived of the Regional Jail system as a means to provide new, modem jail facilities, which meet or exceed all state and federal minimum jail standards,” Vandevender wrote. “Nowhere in the West Virginia Minimum Standards for Construction, Operation and Maintenance of Jails is there a requirement that inmates be provided with video conferencing, email and other such capabilities.

“So, while poorer counties languish in debt and struggle just to keep the lights on, it appears that the WVRJCFA prospers, the surplus continues to grow and the WVRJCFA continues to spend money that is not required.”

He points out coal severance tax dollars are, by law, earmarked strictly for economic development and infrastructure. Vandevender questions the state tax commissioner’s authority to withhold coal severance dollars as well as WVRJCFA’s failure to provide a requested accounting of funds withheld or the intergovernmental agreement authorizing the state to keep the money.

Vandevender contends WVRJCFA “has failed in its duty to the citizens of this state, especially those in the small counties such as Webster County.” Instead of adjusting the per diem rate, he said WVRJCFA continues to build its surplus and spends money on “unnecessary programs such as computer kiosks for inmate video conferencing (and) … directs state officials to seize money without any due process and claims the same is authorized by an Interagency Agreement provided for by a statute that appears to be inapplicable.”

“This is not a case where the county commission has money it wants to spend supporting projects in the community or other nonessential programs rather than pay the statutory obligations to the (jail authority),” he wrote. “Simply put, there is no more money.”

Webster County, he said, “has taken all possible steps to accommodate the requirements placed upon the county by the Legislature.”

“If this Court grants the relief requested by the (jail authority) the only option remaining is to lay off employees; staff that is already operating under nearly impossible circumstances to keep up with the demands of operating the county. If that staff is lost, providing services will become impossible. Tax assessment, tax collection, county police services, prosecution, all will become practically non-existent.”

Fair share

WVRJCFA, for its part, points out the regional jail system exists “for the public safety of the citizens of West Virginia (but) the system is only viable when all of the interested parties fulfill their obligations.”

“The failure of even one county… to pay for the care and upkeep of its inmates can only result in either unacceptably higher levels of cost, lower levels of service, or the eventual collapse of a well thought out cost efficient system,” WVRJCFA said in its brief. “The creation of the Regional Jail system was not a means to increase that burden. To the contrary, the West Virginia Legislature conceived of the regional jail system as a means to provide modern jail facilities, which meet or exceed all state and federal minimum jail standards, without the counties having to bear the cost of construction or administration.”

“However, just as they did before the creation of the regional jail system, the counties remain ultimately responsible for the care and upkeep of their inmates,” they said. “Any further relief must come from the Legislature. And indeed, it may reasonably be anticipated that some relief will eventually come in the form of decreased incarceration rates attendant to the Legislature’s passage of the Criminal Justice Reform Act in 2013, which emphasizes alternative sentencing.”

Until then, WVRJCFA contends the court is “constrained to recognize the mandatory language directing that the counties “shall pay” for the “costs of operating the regional jail facilities” as well as the statutory language that imposes responsibility on the counties for “costs incurred by the Authority for housing and maintaining inmates in its facilities.”

WVRJCFA wants the court to compel Webster County “to fully fund their obligations” to pay per diem jail fees, and to instruct the tax commissioner to turn over the money it has withheld on the authority’s behalf.

This story first appeared in the print edition of The State Journal.