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Inmate costs vexing to county budget
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (Feb. 4, 2009) — County budgets throughout Missouri are facing serious problems, and one of the most serious is a cost that’s generally out of the control of county commissioners — the bill to feed, house, and provide medical care for jail inmates.

Paying for prisoners isn’t popular but it’s required by state law, and when inmates don’t get proper medical attention or don’t receive adequate food that meets dietary guidelines, counties face the risk of serious lawsuits. While cities in Missouri are allowed to have their own jails and courts, the county courts are part of the state circuit court system and legislators years ago decided to pay part of the cost for counties to house inmates who are being held on state charges.

That law has numerous loopholes, however, and those loopholes are costing counties large amounts of money. In Pulaski County, the jail bills run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and the county must absorb many of the jail costs since the state pays nothing for inmates who are held for extended periods but found not guilty, or who are sentenced by the circuit judge to serve their sentence in a county jail rather than the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Even the rule that counties are to be reimbursed for the cost to house inmates who are later convicted and sent to the state prison system has loopholes. Missouri legislators decided years ago to pay $37.50 per day to counties for housing those inmates, but then tacked language onto the law specifying that the full amount is to be paid only “subject to appropriations.” The result is the state budget doesn’t have to bear the burden of an unknown and rapidly escalating cost, but counties are forced to do so instead. In recent years, Missouri has upped its reimbursement rate from $20 per day to $21.25; efforts last year to significantly increase that amount were made by State Sen. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring, who lives in Dent County but whose district includes Pulaski County, but were unsuccessful.

Farnham said there’s no point to having a law with a built-in loophole.

“I understand that for the state, like everyone else, money is tight,” Farnham said. “I’m kind of the feeling that if they’ve got a law on the books, either enforce the law or get rid of it.”

Presiding Commissioner Bill Ransdall, a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, said the law is good but should be amended.

“You probably need to tighten up the rules on ‘subject to appropriations.’ If they would just strike that it would solve the whole problem,” Ransdall said. “I am going to the governor’s office today and that is one of the subjects I am going to speak to him on.”

Farnham said he’s hopeful local economic development in Pulaski County will take care of some of the county’s financial burdens.

“I have the understanding that St. Robert is going to get thee more hotels this year, a restaurant and possibly a drugstore,” Farnham said.

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