Wood County Commission looks for ways to save money in budget

Wood County Commissioners Robert Tebay, Jimmy Colombo and Blair Couch discuss on Monday ways the county can deal with its rising jail bill, including controlling purchases made by county departments. (Photo by Brett Dunlap)

PARKERSBURG — The Wood County Commission is continuing to tighten its belt as it tries to formulate a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The commission unanimously approved a measure Monday to only allow all purchases from various county offices to be made with the commission’s approval until June 30.

The county has traditionally budgeted a carryover from one year to next of around $800,000 to meet expenses and other needs for the start of the new fiscal year.

County officials said they will not make that this year. The expected carryover is now around $400,000.

”We need to ensure that we hold on to what money we have now so we can make payroll for August,” said Commission President Blair Couch. ”It is not a (spending) freeze. This is just for essential items. Any non-emergency purchases have to be held tight.”

The goal is to slow down purchasing, unless it is of an emergency nature, Couch said.

The county is continually dealing with a rising jail bill.

Commissioner Jimmy Colombo said a lot of the county’s current financial situation stems from the rising jail bill.

The county is estimating the jail bill for next year running around $2.7 million, which is a conservative estimate, officials said.

Officials have talked about how jails across the state are understaffed with guards and problems existing as a result of that.

”From top to bottom, the criminal justice system in West Virginia is not functioning properly,” Couch said. ”It is not providing the help to those who need it when they are in crisis.”

There are people who need to be in jail and they are not advocating for dangerous people to be released, commissioners said. They want cases moved through the courts in a more timely manner so certain people can get off of the jail bill and go on the state’s bill or be considered for a possible alternative sentence, county officials said.

The county commission has supported efforts in the Legislature to address some of these concerns and ways that would cost the counties less money to house inmates.

House Bill 2845 would make the Division of Corrections responsible for the housing costs upon a person’s conviction rather than when the commitment order at sentencing is entered into the court record. The lag time can be 60 days generally after presentencing evaluations are ordered and performed.

The change would save Wood County $490,000 a year, which is a conservative estimate, officials said.

Couch was recently told by lawmakers the bill will not go anywhere this session.

The bill would cost-shift approximately $5 million from the counties to the Department of Corrections. Couch said lawmakers were not going to increase costs at the statewide level.

The commission has supported issues that would generate more revenue for the county to offset expenses, such as a bill to grant Home Rule status to counties. That bill doesn’t appear to be going anywhere this session.

The state is looking at bills that would take part of the county’s concealed gun fund and 911 fund.

”The cost shifting is only going in one direction,” Couch said.

Magistrate court clerk Paulina Yearego appeared before the commission on Monday to ask for changes at the Wood County Justice Center to allow for the creation of a fourth courtroom to handle backed-up case logs.

”That inadvertently affects the jail bill,” Couch said of the backlog. ”Those people might have to stay in the regional jail longer.”

Yearego wanted a change in the floor plan where underused rooms could be converted into court space by removing walls and adding security measures. She did not have cost estimates.

Commissioners agreed to tour the space and asked Yearego to get cost estimates for the work.

They cautioned her that the money was not available for large scale projects and that the county had courtrooms that could be made available on certain days in the Circuit Court and Family Court if need be if nothing was happening in those courtrooms on certain days.

The Wood County Assessor’s Office identified $300,000 in delinquent mobile home taxes in the county that they will be looking to collect.

Commissioners said they might have to file a lawsuit to get the 1 percent sales tax that cities now offer.

Couch estimated it is costing every resident in Wood County $33 a year for the jail bill.