The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 13, 2013

W.Va. jail construction bond revenues faltering

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s network of regional jails no longer collects enough annual revenues to pay off the bonds that financed their construction, prompting lawmakers Tuesday to consider targeting long-unpaid fees for the needed funding.

Jail agency chief Joe DeLong told a House-Senate Judiciary Committee that the jails’ share of proceeds from court fees have plummeted from $13 million in 2004 to below $8 million last year. The Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority needs at least $9 million annually to pay bond investors, said DeLong, the agency’s executive director.

“I don’t know the reasons why for this, but there was a significant drop-off from 2006 to 2007,” DeLong said. “It always fluctuates a little bit, but I don’t know if this was something that was done legislatively, or perhaps it was more just an impact economically.”

DeLong said the sinking revenue has raised flags with the New York-based insurers that are backing the bonds. At their request, the agency has created an $11 million reserve fund, he said. But DeLong warned that the agency still seeks sufficient ongoing revenues to keep up with the annual bond payments.

“If court fees continue to decline, that money has to be made up somewhere,” DeLong said.

The quandary has legislators hoping that pursuing unpaid fees may help offset the sinking revenues. Kevin Baker, a lawyer for the Senate Judiciary Committee, outlined a bill that lawmakers are drafting for the regular session. It would allow people with unpaid traffic citations issued before July 2008 to clear their records — and in at least some cases regain their drivers’ licenses — by paying a fraction of what they owe.

Baker said the terms must change, but the current draft would allow these scofflaws to pay $100 for the first ticket and $25 for each additional one. Lawmakers hope that would yield some quick cash both for the jails and the other recipients of court fees.

This draft bill would also allow counties to join a program that now helps municipalities collect unpaid fees by going after state income tax refunds. As drafted, counties could also enlist the state Department of Administration to hire a licensed debt collector if the fees remain unpaid after three years of seeking out an offender’s tax refunds, Baker said.

“It will allow for partial collections of these fees that are old and presumably are very unlikely to be paid in full if they’ve been unpaid for so long,” Baker told lawmakers.

The latter proposal would help counties generally while also avoiding a revenue option DeLong mentioned: increasing the per-day fees that the jails charge counties for housing their inmates. The network of 10 regional jails gradually replaced local jails in the 55 counties, and counties have since frequently complained about those fees. DeLong said his agency hoped to avoid hiking the fees to satisfy the bond payments. Sen. Art Kirkendoll, a Democrat and former longtime Logan County commissioner, agreed.

“Most of these counties simply have problems with per diem increases. A large amount of them struggle with that,” Kirkendoll said.

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