MARTINSBURG – The high cost of running the Eastern Panhandle Regional Jail and other challenges facing county commissioners in Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties dominated a special gathering here this week.
Every year before the Eastern Panhandle’s lawmakers head to Charleston, they meet with their local counterparts to learn what priorities they believe ought to be addressed during the upcoming session of the Legislature.
On Monday, the Legislative Summit for Eastern Panhandle brought local leaders and state lawmakers from the Panhandle together for a day-long conference at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in Martinsburg.
The gathering now has been held for six straight years.
Dale Manuel, a Democrat who previously served in the House and now is a Jefferson County Commissioner, said leaders from all three counties agreed the biggest headache on their plates were rising incarceration rates and increased costs to counties to operate regional jails.
For Jefferson County, the price tag for the jail this year will run $1.5 million or more, Manuel said. The three counties combined spend $5 million a year now.
“We are looking at ways to either raise revenue to meet those costs or to reduce and contain those costs,” Manuel said.
State Sen. Herb Snyder said the Panhandle’s legislative delegation heard the counties’ message. “This is nothing new,” the Democrat from Shenandoah Junction said. “This is their No. 1 item every single session.”
But, Snyder said, he wants to help find a fix. “Anything that takes some of this burden off of the counties [would be good,]” he said.
One possibility discussed during Monday’s session focuses on a change in transfer taxes collected by counties. Right now, a third of that money goes to the state – a total of about $8 million annually.
Snyder has long sponsored a bill that would allow counties to keep more of that money, to be earmarked for regional jail expenses. “We’ve had a hard time passing the bill because it would be a significant fiscal hit for the state.”
To lessen the hit, the change could be phased in over several years, Snyder said. Another way to cut costs, he said, would be to send fewer criminals to jail. “The problem is that there are just an awful lot of people in jail,” Snyder said. “That is heavily being looked at by the entire Legislature.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin may address the problem, Snyder said. “The governor may propose something like not [mandating] jail time for lesser offenses,” he said. “That not only reduces the county jail bills, but would also do something about our jail overcrowding.”
Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, a Democrat recently elected to her second term, agreed. “We have a serious overcrowding problem,” she said.
Other top issues cited during Monday’s meeting included volunteer fire departments’ Workers Compensation payments, the Homestead Exemption Act and recent service cuts to the MARC commuter train that takes workers from Jefferson and Berkeley counties to D.C. each weekday.
Issues involving 911/central dispatch service and homeowner associations also were listed as key concerns.
Lyn Widmyer, a Democrat who serves on the Jefferson County Commission, said the yearly gathering is helpful. “It is productive,” she said. “You get to hear from your fellow commissioners from other counties about what your common interests are. I think we have a better chance of getting our priorities addressed when it is clear that we have these common interests.”
Paul Espinosa, a Republican who will start his first term in the Legislature next year, called Monday’s meeting “very beneficial.”
“I found it very helpful to hear what their priorities are, not only as individual commissions, but also as a region,” said Espinosa, who said he attended last year’s session as a private citizen.
“I really appreciate the fact that the commissioners are taking the initiative to help establish their priorities.” he said. “I think they will be successful on several issues.”