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Jail seeks funds for bond investors

Feb. 12, 2013 @ 11:10 PM

CHARLESTON -- Dwindling revenues from court fees are posing challenges to making the required payments on the bonds that financed the construction of West Virginia's 10 regional jails.

West Virginia Regional Jail Authority Executive Director Joe DeLong told state lawmakers during a House-Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Tuesday that revenues from court fees dropped from $13 million in 2004 to $7.9 million last year. The Regional Jail Authority, however, needs $9 million annually from those revenues to pay bond investors, DeLong said. The agency still owes about $60 million, he said.

The decline in revenues from court fees has triggered concern among companies in New York that insure the bonds, DeLong said. The Regional Jail Authority has complied with a request from those companies to create an $11 million reserve fund, but the agency still needs to bring in enough revenue to make its annual bond payments.

DeLong said he doesn't have an explanation for the reduction in court fees but noted there was a sharp decline between 2006 and 2007.

"It always fluctuates a little bit, but I don't know if this was something that was done legislatively, or perhaps it was more of an impact economically," he said.

If state officials cannot identify ways to collect court fees, DeLong said his agency may have no choice but to raise the per-day fee that it charges counties, the state Division of Corrections and the federal government to take care of their inmates.

The regional jails house pre-trail defendants and inmates sentenced to terms of less than one year. But in recent years they have also housed longer-term prisoners because the state's prisons are at capacity.

Court fees and the per-day fees are the Regional Jail Authority's primary sources of revenue, DeLong said. Smaller revenue streams come from expenses charged to inmates for services they receive in the jails such as phone usage, he said.

The per-day fee has been a strain on county budgets ever since the regional jail system replaced the 55 county jails. In Cabell County, regional jail costs represent more than 14 percent of the county's $21 million budget. Through the first seven months of the fiscal year, the county spent about $1.9 million of the $3 million that it appropriated for jail costs, County Manager Chris Tatum said.

The current per-day fee for counties and the state Division of Corrections is $48.80, which is a 55-cent reduction from last year. The rate is adjusted annually using a formula based on the total number of incarcerated days from the previous year, DeLong said.

With the Legislature expected to tackle prison overcrowding problems in prisons and regional jails across the state, DeLong said his goal is to establish a per-day rate that doesn't fluctuate one year to the next.

"I want to get the per-diem rate down to something that the counties can forecast for years ahead and also gives us the revenue we need to cover our costs and operate efficiently," DeLong said. "It doesn't do good for anyone to reduce the per diem rate and then turn around and raise it drastically a year or two later. That's happened in the past."

During the committee meeting, lawmakers discussed a bill still in the drafting stage that would attempt to collect court fees that have gone unpaid for several years. The draft bill, described by some legislators as an amnesty program, would attempt to collect delinquent court fees and provide the Regional Jail Authority with an infusion of cash to help make its bond payments.

It would let people with unpaid traffic citations prior to July 1, 2008, pay $100 for the first citation and $25 for each additional citation. In return, their driving records would be cleared and their driver's license reinstated if it had been suspended for unpaid citations.

The proposal also would allow counties to collect unpaid court fees from a person's state income tax returns. Municipalities already have this authority, according to a staff attorney who went over the provisions of the draft bill. The counties could work with the state to turn the unpaid fees over to a debt collector if the attempts to collect from income tax returns are unsuccessful after three years, the attorney said.

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.

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