Jail Authority asks for local help

CHARLESTON – The head of the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority is enlisting local help to make financial improvements at regional jails.

Executive Director Joe DeLong is halfway through a series of 10 regional cost containment meetings, local sessions where he meets with county officials to discuss legislative changes needed to save money for the authority and ultimately for county commissions.

Those meetings primarily focus on two areas, personnel and investments.

“We were spending almost a quarter of our personnel budget on overtime,” DeLong said.

DeLong said authority officials have already made strides in reducing the cost of overtime at regional jails. Last year the authority piloted a program at the South Central Regional Jail to hire additional staff and in doing so saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime.

“A lot of the positive effect we’ve seen for the system has all been at that one jail,” he said.

The program is being rolled out at other regional jails.

Still, DeLong said more needs done in the areas of hiring and salaries. A change in state law in 2008 removed much of the autonomy of the board in managing and compensating personnel. DeLong said if that autonomy were returned, the authority could better address high turnover rates and the difficulty in attracting and retaining high-quality personnel.

DeLong said another area of need is in investments. State law requires the Regional Jail Authority to hold a large amount of cash in reserve for operations and in bond reserves. The total is around $30 million, which is held by the Board of Treasury Investments.

DeLong said he would like to have the option of investing that money with the state Investment Management Board instead.

“The treasury gives us a return of about .5 percent a year,” he said. “IMB had a return last year of about 17 percent. It is a state agency entrusted with the funds of numerous state agencies. Why couldn’t we use that and get a better return? It is a long-standing lost opportunity.”

DeLong said he is taking his message to the county commissions in hopes of seeing change at the legislative level. DeLong said ultimately he would like to see the Regional Jail Authority have more autonomy in setting salaries for staff and being able to change the state agency with which the authority invests.

Both of those changes would require changes in the laws and legislative approval.

“Ultimately anything we are able to do is going to impact our per diem and save county commissions money,” DeLong said. “I’m asking them to contact their legislators and push for these changes.”

Vivian Parsons, executive director of the state County Commissions Association, said the association and many county commissions support DeLong’s efforts to help regional jails run more efficiently. The association will meet in August to begin formulating its legislative agenda for the coming session and regional jail costs will be a hot topic.

“Regional jail costs are always at the top of our legislative priorities,” Parsons said. “It’s not so much about the daily per diem cost, which has stayed relatively low in recent years, but more about the number of incarcerations that are arriving. It is a budget buster for many of our counties.”

Parsons said councils are interested in DeLong’s ideas because any steps which reduce the cost of running the regional jails will help reduce the cost of county’s using those jails.

“Anywhere we can improve is ultimately going to help the counties,” she said.

The County Commissions Association’s legislative agenda is expected to be finalized in September.

The next West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority regional cost containment meeting will be Aug. 14 at the South Central Regional Jail in South Charleston. DeLong also will hold meetings Sept. 18 at the Central Regional Jail in Flatwoods, Oct. 2 at the Tygart Valley Regional Jail in Elkins, Oct. 16 at the Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville and Nov. 6 at the Western Regional Jail in Barboursville.