CHARLESTON – Justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals must decide whether the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority charges counties too much for keeping suspects behind bars.
The jail authority seeks to reverse a decision of Cabell County Circuit Judge David Pancake, who cut the daily inmate rate from $48.50 to $42.02.
Pancake ruled that Cabell County commissioners properly reduced jail payments when they reduced other payments to avoid a deficit.
He rejected the authority's argument that state and national constitutions required full payment.
Justices will hear oral arguments Wednesday, Oct. 10.
According to attorney Gary Pullin of the Charleston law firm of Pullin, Fowler & Flanagan, Pancake's order allowed Cabell County to default on about $1,800,000 in fees.
"This default is a result of a planned, organized, deliberate and premeditated effort by Cabell County commissioners to avoid their constitutional and legal debts," Pullin wrote.
He argued that Pancake's order "seriously threatens the viability of the unique statewide jail system in West Virginia" and that six other counties unilaterally reduced payments on the strength of Pancake's order.
In response, Ancil Ramey of the Charleston office of Steptoe & Johnson argued for Cabell County that counties have laid workers off and cut services due to high jail costs.
"Upon creating the regional jail system, the Legislature established a mechanism for its users to pay for the actual operating expenses of the regional jails so that they would be self supporting," he wrote. "What the authority has done, however, is to create a system which has allowed it to charge its users well in excess of actual operating expenses and to accumulate a huge surplus ..."
He wrote that rates have exceeded expenses by about 20 percent and the authority has a surplus of more than $12 million.
Pullin responded that the authority maintains no more reserves than necessary to fulfill its financial obligations for a brief period.
The Legislature created the authority in 1985, so counties could close obsolete jails. Through the authority taxpayers built ten regional jails.
"Nevertheless, in just the same manner as before the regional jail system, the counties remain ultimately responsible for the care and upkeep of their inmates," Pullin wrote.
He wrote that Cabell County commissioners gave $3,000 raises to deputy sheriffs and tied the raises to a reduction in the regional jail budget.
"Despite the comparatively low per diem rate, the Cabell County Commission has essentially shirked its responsibility to pay for the care and upkeep of those it detains and jails in the regional jail system," he wrote.
Pullin claimed commissioners budgeted half of the cost they anticipated.
"Sadly, if the Cabell County Commission is permitted to have its way, other counties, many poorer than Cabell County, with commissioners who take their fiscal responsibility seriously must ultimately have to pay higher jail costs to subsidize Cabell County's irresponsible behavior," Pullin wrote.
Ramey painted a rosier picture of authority finances, claiming that in 2005 its revenues exceeded expenditures by almost $16 million.
"Moreover, the Authority ended the fiscal year with a fund balance of over $26 million," Ramey wrote. "... there are no more county jails and county commissioners have no statutory obligation to maintain jails.
"Judge Pancake correctly held that the Commission's obligation to the Authority is statutory, not constitutional, and its duty to fund and pay its constitutional obligations, including those to its constitutional officers, has precedence over its statutory duty to pay the Authority.
"Escalating regional jail costs have placed a crippling burden upon the state's counties, forcing libraries to close, health insurance to be dropped, services to be curtailed, and employees to be subjected to layoff."
Ramey wrote that the the Commission understands that the Authority needs to collect sufficient funds to be able to cover its operating expenses.
"What the Commission cannot understand is how the Authority can defend operating with a 20 percent profit margin in order to accumulate cash reserves of almost $13 million and a fund balance of over $26 million," he wrote.
He called for a legislative solution, writing that both the authority and the commission support requiring municipalities to bear some of the burden.
"This Court should allow Judge Pancake's ruling to stand and, hopefully, serve as a catalyst for change," Ramey wrote.
Along with Ramey, Hannah Curry of Steptoe & Johnson's Charleston office and Huntington attorney William Watson represent the county.
Along with Pullin, Robert Russell of Pullin, Fowler & Flanagan represents the authority. So does the authority's general counsel, Chad Cardinal.