Jail budget dwindling

September 19, 1997


Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Just two months into the 1997-98 fiscal year, nearly one-third of the money budgeted for housing prisoners at the Eastern Regional Jail has been spent, according to the Berkeley County Commission.

"To our surprise, that thing has really escalated," Commission President Jim Smith said Thursday. The escalation, however, began in the latter part of the 1996-97 fiscal year when the number of inmates from the county housed at the Eastern Regional Jail began climbing beyond expectations.

According to County Administrator Deborah Sheetenhelm, the county spent $1,199,750 last year, almost twice the $650,000 budgeted for corrections. During the year, the monthly expenditures rose from $89,376 in July 1996 to $123,134 in June of this year.


Sheetenhelm said the commission was pleased when the figured dipped to about $109,000 in July. Nevertheless, by Sept. 9 the county had expended $221,589 of the $675,000 it had budgeted for inmate housing this year.

That translates to about 6,000 inmate days in the Eastern Regional Jail at a per diem cost of $38 in just over two months. Sheetenhelm said the number of county prisoners at the jail fluctuates, but last year the trend was generally upward.

"If they're committing crimes, we need to lock them up," Smith noted. He added that in the spring of 1996, the monthly cost of prisoner housing was about $60,000 a month. Part of the problem of an expanding economy and population, he said, is an increase in crime.

Work on the current fiscal year's budget began early this year when monthly costs were still running under $100,000. "This is the kind of item you can't really plan for" because it is difficult to predict how many people will be sentenced to jail, Sheetenhelm noted.

"We had a couple of months of real high jail bills and we thought it was a fluke, but it wasn't," Smith remarked during the commission meeting.

Sheetenhelm said the exploding costs of incarceration caused quite a few headaches last year. Once the budgeted money started to run low, the county had to submit monthly budget revisions to the state to move unencumbered funds into its corrections budget.

She said prison costs were a big reason Morgan County had to raise taxes this year. It's also eating into the unencumbered balance for Berkeley County, which she said began at $370,238.

"We attempt to keep approximately $600,000 in the unencumbered fund balance," Sheetenhelm said. "It's the reason we're expressly financially conservative this year," Sheetenhelm said.

She said the commission is keeping a close eye on the cost of projects because of the effect the prison costs could have on the $8.9 million general fund budget.

Another problem for the county is how the per diem costs are shared. While the county paid out almost $1.2 million for prisoner housing, the reimbursement from the city of Martinsburg was $53,906.

Smith estimated that one-third of the prisoners from Berkeley County are from the city and said there needs to be a reimbursement formula to more evenly distribute the burden.

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