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Jails chief: Court costs and fees have inexplicably declined

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Revenues from court costs and fees have inexplicably declined over the past eight years, putting a crimp into the fund the Regional Jail Authority uses to pay off bonds sold to build the state's 10 regional jails, executive director Joe DeLong told legislators Tuesday.

The Regional Jail Authority's share of court fees, collected on everything from traffic citations to criminal convictions, has declined nearly 40 percent from 2004.

"We certainly have more people going through the court system," DeLong said, "but the fees are declining."

In 2004, the authority's share of court fees was $13 million. In 2007, DeLong said, there was a sudden drop-off in collections to $8.7 million, and in 2012, that amount continued to decline to $7.9 million.

The Regional Jail Authority needs to have at least $9 million coming in from that source of revenue to pay its annual bond indebtedness, but in recent years it has had to tap into other funds -- including revenue from phone charges on inmate calls and from jail commissary sales -- to come up with the $9 million, DeLong said.

"The folks who are getting most nervous about this are our bond insurers," DeLong said.

At the insurers' request, the authority moved $11 million of surplus into a bond contingency fund, but DeLong said the concern is that the authority ultimately might have to increase per-diem fees for housing inmates to make up for the lost court-costs revenue.

DeLong said some municipalities offer safe-driving schools as an alternative to paying traffic citations, but said those programs are not large enough to account for the sharp drop-off in court costs and fees.

On Tuesday, the Joint Committee on Finance reviewed draft legislation to encourage people to pay delinquent traffic fines and other court costs.

A proposed amnesty bill would allow drivers with unpaid traffic tickets issued before June 30, 2008, to pay a flat $100 fee for the first citation and $25 fees for each additional citation.

Another proposal would allow counties to garnish unpaid magistrate and circuit court costs from individuals' state income tax refunds.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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