by Malia Rulon
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLESTON -- Counties could be forced to pay up to $43.25 per day for each inmate housed in regional jails "just to make ends meet" and give correctional officers a $2,000 across the board raise, the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority said Monday.
The board voted 3-1 to implement a $3.75 per diem increase July 1. The amount could be reduced if the Legislature mandates prisoners pay their first day of incarceration at the established rate or offers other monetary assistance.
Steve Canterbury, executive director of West Virginia Regional Jail Authority, told board members a minimum $1.65 per diem increase was necessary to cover a 25 percent increase in prison medical costs, higher gasoline prices, increases in natural gas and other utility rates, and higher workers compensation premiums.
"That's necessary just for us to keep the lights on and doors open," he said.
Canterbury said besides meeting the basics, the authority needs to give correctional officers a pay raise to keep them from leaving for higher paid jobs at other prisons or in other states.
"I'm caught in the middle," Canterbury told the dozen or so county commission members crowded into the board room. "It's difficult for me to ask for (the raise) knowing that we need an extra $1.65 just to break even."
Canterbury had pushed for a $4,000 pay raise, but admitted such a raise would require a per diem increase of close to $6.
"My hope is that the $2,000 (pay raise) will keep some of our senior officers in place and encourage some more junior officers to make a career of it," he said. "I am of course not 100 percent pleased ... but I am also aware that counties have very tight budgets."
The Regional Jail Authority, established to eliminate the state's outdated jails, is supported by a the current $39.50 per inmate per day fee charged to cities and counties.
The last per diem increase was $1.50 in July 1998. Still, West Virginia has the lowest per diem rate in the nation, Canterbury said, adding that the national average is $63.
"Our rate is so much lower than the national average, it's mind-boggling," he said.
But county representatives at the meeting said they can barely pay the current fee, let alone a higher amount.
"All the counties are bleeding from the fiscal artery," said Harrison County Commission President Beth Taylor. "We just aren't the answer."
Donald Mason, president of the Marshall County Commission, said the per diem increase is making the "good citizens pay for the bad guys."
"We need to find a new solution," he said. "It would affect every county in this state adversely"
The authority will meet after the 60-day legislative session to determine if any legislation is passed to lower the per diem increase for cities and counties.