CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has told Webster County it has to pay its regional jail bill that now stands at more than $1.5 million.
In a unanimous decision released Sept. 15, the justices also ruled that the state Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority and the county can work out a payment plan.
Webster County, like the state and many other counties, has been affected by decreasing coal severance tax revenues.
The Regional Jail Authority says the Webster County Commission has not paid on the debt since mid-2012. The county commission disputes the time frame but does not challenge the amount owed.
The jail debt continues to grow at about $40,000 per month, and the county realizes it has a statutory duty to pay the debt. It says it simply does not have the money to do so, adding that it is doing the bare minimum at the county level with the constitutional offices.
"The commission argues that it should not be required to pay the debt it owes the Regional Jail," the opinion states. "Some of the reasons cited by the commission include: it experienced an increase in drug prosecutions from 2013-2014; from 2010-2015 its coal severance monies were reduced in half; real property is being taxed at the maximum allowable rate; it has spent its “rainy day” reserve fund; it reduced its budget; it imposed a hiring freeze; employee benefits have been cut; it no longer funds many community programs and services; tax assessment, tax collection, county police services, and prosecution will become practically non-existent; the Regional Jail has a surplus of $58,482,000; and the Regional Jail 'spends money on unnecessary programs such as computer kiosks for inmate video conferencing.'"
In its opinion, the court cited a similar 2005 ruling related to Cabell County paying its jail bill.
“Therefore, we hold that the Commission must pay the debt of approximately $1.31 million dollars it owed to the Regional Jail at the time that this proceeding was filed, in addition to payment of the debt that accrued while this case was pending,” the Justices wrote. “We further require the Regional Jail to work out a payment plan with the Commission that allows the Commission to pay the past debt in installments over the course of a reasonable period of time.”
The court, however, said the state can't withhold tax payments to Webster County to pay the jail authority. The Jail Authority had sought that remedy, but it later decided not to try that route.
"The Regional Jail also has indicated in its brief that it contacted the state Tax
Commissioner and requested tax payments due to Webster County be withheld," the opinion states. "The Regional Jail has asked this court to order the Tax Commissioner to
give it the tax monies it is holding for Webster County.
"We decline to grant such relief
because the Tax Commissioner is not a party to this litigation."