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Putnam officials look for savings on jail fees

WINFIELD, W.Va. -- Putnam County will be lucky if it can maintain what it's paying now to house inmates at the Western Regional Jail, even though the cost has gone up about $300,000 in two years, the county's prosecutor told commissioners Tuesday.

Commissioners asked county Prosecuting Attorney Mark Sorsaia, Sheriff Steve Deweese and Chief Deputy Jack Luikart for ideas on how to reduce the $1.3 million cost that's taking a huge chunk out of the county's budget.

"A realistic goal would be to keep it the same," Sorsaia said. "I'm more concerned about it going up."

However, Deweese, who took office at the beginning of the year, told commissioners an error he noticed on criminal complaint forms that should start saving the county some money on the jail bill.

When police fill out paperwork after someone is arrested in the county who is charged with a crime in, say, Kanawha County, it's usually marked as Putnam, since that's where the arrest was made, he said. But when that happens, the regional jail bills Putnam for Kanawha's offenders, according to Deweese.

He told commissioners his office would closely monitor the forms to make sure it stops.

That's only a small fix, though, since in the last two years, the number of felony cases in Putnam has gone up by 20 percent, according to Sorsaia. And the driving force behind the caseload is drug addiction, which is leading to burglaries, among other crimes.

"The bottom line is that we're in a sea of addiction," he said, noting the need for drug treatment facilities for nonviolent offenders.

Last March, commissioners passed a $18.39 million budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, which increased the county's levy rate by 0.3 cents per $100 of assessed property value -- from 13.55 to 13.85. They blamed the jail bill and little growth in the county at the time for the increase.

Commissioner Steve Andes asked if it was possible to charge offenders when they're sent to jail.

"We want you guys to do your job, but how can we make the bad guy pay?" he said. "What if they're in jail 30 days; could we make them pay $3,000 over five years?"

"The problem is they just don't make it," Sorsaia said. "If you're convicted of a crime, you're unemployable -- you can't even get a job in fast food."

Commissioners noted their situation isn't unique and that most counties in the state are struggling to pay the rising costs to house inmates, but vowed to offer support for any drug treatment options, whether it be opened by the state or an agency that might consider coming to the county.

Community-based drug treatment centers, where addicts might report daily and there is little to no security, have been resisted in the past by residents, however, Deweese said. He cited the group Parents Against Addiction, which has tried for several years to open a facility in Putnam -- first in Hurricane and then in Buffalo. Critics snubbed the idea, saying it would cause trouble in their communities.

"Now they're looking in the Milton area, I believe," he said.

In other business at the meeting, commissioners agreed to advertise for bids from banks so county agencies can begin taking credit or debit card payments.

Last year, legislation was updated to allow more than just sheriff's departments to utilize the payment option, County Clerk Brian Wood said. He asked commissioners to approve the measure for all county departments to use if they choose.

County Attorney Jennifer Scragg Karr said the county could pass on to consumers any fee a bank might charge to swipe a card. It's usually assigned to the vendor, she said.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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