Raleigh County Commission President Dave Tolliver is spearheading a movement locally to push the West Virginia Legislature to help counties to address staggeringly high regional jail bills, by either allowing counties to claim "home rule" or by requiring municipalities to pay a portion of the cost of housing local inmates.
Allowing counties in the state a tax option being used by municipalities under Home Rule will be the impetus behind legislation being promoted by the County Commission Association of West Virginia.
In an effort to avert what he says is a financial crisis barreling towards the county, Tolliver is asking commissioners in Wyoming, Fayette, Summers, Monroe, McDowell, Boone and Nicholas counties to band together to ask West Virginia delegates to "push a bill that can help us."
"If you get all those delegates together, you're talking about 30 delegates out of 100," Tolliver said. "We're going to try — and see what happens.
"It just can't continue for Raleigh County, and I know some other counties are really struggling," Tolliver said. "It's getting to the point, it's going to be critical in the next few months.
"It's a serious problem right now, but it's going to get critical if something's not done."
County commissioners throughout the state expressed similar concerns at their annual meeting at Canaan Valley in early August.
County commissioners in McDowell County pointed to their jail bill as the main culprit in their difficult decisions to cut expenses and services to balance their county budget.
"That's what's killing us," commission President Cecil Patterson told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in early August. "Our regional jail bill is $55,000 to $60,000 a month,"
Tolliver said Tuesday that Raleigh County's bill to Southern Regional Jail has skyrocketed past budget this fiscal year. If the trend continues, the county may be forced to lay off workers or cut services.
Tolliver and commissioners Kay Epling and Ron Hedrick had budgeted $2.5 million for the fiscal year. As of Tuesday, Commission had already paid $663,000, or over $200,000 a month since July 1 to house inmates at $48.25 per day per inmate.
"If it continues to do like this, we'll be well in excess of $100,000 over our budget for the year," Tolliver predicted. "It's usually not running but about $130,000 to $150,000, but since this fiscal year, it's running over $200,000 a month."
He said the September jail bill was $221,000.
The Raleigh Commission is sending letters to 12 West Virginia delegates and two senators to ask for support of "home rule" for counties.
Currently, cities in the state may claim "home rule," allowing those cities to implement a 1 percent sales tax. The "home rule" does not apply to county governments.
The City of Beckley recently implemented its sales tax under "home rule" status — something Raleigh Commission would be open to doing if state lawmakers will allow counties to claim home rule, said Tolliver.
The letter also requests that state lawmakers require cities to pay a portion of the jail costs, as an alternative.
Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold said Tuesday that the city has made no plans to pay a portion of the jail bill.
"No plans at this time," the mayor said. "Other municipalities around the state do not help with county jail bills, as far as we have learned.
"We help the county in a number of different ways, financially."
The mayor said he is supportive of a "home rule" status for counties.
"(I) see absolutely no problem with that effort," he said. "The city has a very vigilant police force and incarcerations at Southern Regional, as a result.
"We work well with the county Commission and try to support them in every instance our budget allows," he added.
Tolliver and others believe a rise in drug-related crime due to the devastating opioid epidemic is the root of the problem, and the county has exhausted its own resources for reducing jail bills.
He said about 70 county residents are on home confinement and that 120 people are enrolled in the Raleigh Day Report Center, an alternative sentencing program that assists clients who have committed non-violent crimes in staying out of jail and rebuilding their lives.
"We're doing everything we can, but it just keeps going up and up," Tolliver said.
Tolliver and others in Raleigh County would like to see a portion of legal settlement monies from pharmaceutical companies like McKesson and Perdue Pharma divided and funneled to local commissions to assist citizens who are recovering from addiction.
Tolliver said "it's a good question" as to why counties are seeing none of the settlement monies and one that he cannot answer.
Counties are left to solve the problem on their own, and Tolliver said something's got to give.
"You've got to do something," said Tolliver. "You can't continue to pay this kind of money."