Jail costs a top legislative concern in Eastern Panhandle

December 03, 2012|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Finding ways to stem the spiraling cost of running the regional jail remains a top legislative concern of county leaders in the Eastern Panhandle.

Jail costs for Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties totaled more than $4.8 million for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which ended June 30, according to figures reviewed Monday at an annual summit of the region’s state lawmakers and county officials.

The combined regional jail costs of the three counties accounted for more than 10 percent of the statewide figure of $45.5 million, but Vivian Parsons of the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia told the group that the issue is a major concern for counties across the state, too.

In reviewing the figures, Parsons noted Berkeley County saw a 24 percent increase in jail costs since the 2010 fiscal year, while Morgan County had to absorb an 18 percent spike. Jefferson County saw a 5 percent increase in the three-year “look back,” she said.

Berkeley County Council President William L. “Bill” Stubblefield said after the meeting that the regional jail cost is “without question” the top issue for the Eastern Panhandle counties and is confident that progress will be made on the issue, given that the concern is statewide.

“The funding issue is the No. 1 challenge for the county commission and it’s not just the Eastern Panhandle, it’s statewide,” Stubblefield said.

State Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, said he would again push legislation that would allow the counties to put a portion of the transfer tax collected from property transfers toward jail costs. The change would mean about $8 million for all the counties in the state, Snyder said.

Parsons noted the County Commissioners’ Association supports implementing new measures to collect outstanding court costs, implementation of a pretrial diversion program used in Baltimore and other changes to tackle the problem.

Parsons also noted that the state Regional Jail Authority’s new director, Joe DeLong, seems to be taking a business-like approach to running the agency and appears committed to tackling operational issues, such as  staffing, need for overtime and low pay for correctional officers.

Aside from the jail cost issue, the counties’ legislative priorities include increasing the Homestead Exemption for seniors and the permanently handicapped, bar closings, workers’ compensation for volunteer fire departments and homeowners association issues.

Toward the end of the meeting, incoming State Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, joined in support of Morgan County Commissioner Stacy Dugan’s suggestion that the three Eastern Panhandle counties work to gain more representation on state boards and commissions.

“They can be as influential as what the commissioners and what the legislators are also,” Blair said after the meeting.

Snyder told those gathered that he talked to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin about appointing someone from the Eastern Panhandle to the state board of education.

“I’m all over us getting a school board member from up here,” Snyder said.

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