BECKLEY, W.Va. — Following a recent meeting with state House delegates and county officials in southern West Virginia, Raleigh County Commission President Dave Tolliver said he is cautiously optimistic about the chances for legislative action to offset spiraling incarceration costs at regional jails.
Under current state law mandating a per diem rate for each inmate arrested and jailed, virtually all costs following an initial arrest by local authorities or by West Virginia State Police are absorbed at the county level. Tolliver told MetroNews he would like to see, at a minimum, passage of a bill requiring municipalities to cover the expenses associated with the first day of an arrest by city police.
“Most people who are bonded out of jail, it’s usually done within two days,” he explained.
Alternatively, Tolliver said he and a coalition of county commissioners, including those in Fayette, Boone, McDowell, Wyoming, Summers, Mercer, Monroe and Nicholas, want state lawmakers to allow counties to charge a sales tax similar to the 1 percent municipal sales tax permitted by the expansion of West Virginia’s Home Rule Program, which began in 2007 as a pilot initiative, allowing Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling and Bridgeport to enact laws, ordinances and policies without regard for the state code, under certain restrictions.
Although Tolliver said he understands the reluctance among many House delegates to pave the way for additional taxes being imposed on their constituents, he noted the City of Beckley’s adoption of a 1 percent tax under the Home Rule and predicted there would be general public acceptance of a levy intended to avert what otherwise would be a financial crisis impacting those same constituents.
“I said, ‘Well, you added the (municipal) tax to the people that live outside of Beckley.’ I mean, let’s get real, most people in Raleigh County come to Beckley to spend their money,” said Tolliver.
Of the $2.5 million budgeted by the Raleigh County Commission for the fiscal year beginning in July, more than $880,000 has been spent to process, house and feed inmates in the county, according to Tolliver.
“If our jail bill continues to be $220,000 a month, then, this time next year, when we set the budget for 2020-21, there’s no way in the world we can keep up,” he said. “If this continues, there’s going to be some drastic cuts in Raleigh County.”
Tolliver warned of an impending fiscal crisis in which the commission would have no choice but to reduce expenditures drastically, including eliminating positions within the county government, in order to prevent escalating jail costs incurred at Southern Regional Jail and other facilities from engulfing the budget. To do otherwise, he said, would jeopardize Raleigh County’s allocation of the coal severance tax, the coalbed methane gas severance tax, and reallocated tax money, all of which would be redirected by state auditors to the county’s jail bill, in the event of a deficit.
“If you get behind, then the auditors, they will send you a letter stating, ‘What is your plan of correction? Are you going to cut budgets? Are you going to lay people off?’ They’re going to get their money, one way or the other,” said Tolliver.
During their annual meeting in August, members of the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia echoed Tolliver’s concerns, attributing most of the escalating jail costs to West Virginia’s drug abuse epidemic.
The association has advocated for the passage of a bill requiring all revenue generated by a county-level tax be used for regional incarceration expenses.