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Lake counties see insufficient reimbursement for incarceration of state prisoners

Dan Field
newsroom@lakesunonline.com
Passbook, money, calculator, and hand holding pencil.

Two lake-area counties are among dozens across the state coming up short in being reimbursed for the incarceration of state prisoners.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway released a report recently that says a lack of adequate funding is leaving county taxpayers bearing much of the cost of housing prisoners. Low rates and delayed payments have resulted in counties statewide paying about $41 million in incarceration costs in 2020.

Camden and Miller counties were among counties coming up short, according to the state audit.

Camden County requested $274,000 in fiscal 2020 to help cover the costs of jailing state prisoners. However, only $202,036 was actually received by the county, leaving a shortage of $72,428. Miller County requested $300,372 for reimbursement but recently only $253,813 leaving a shortage of $46,559.

Taxpayers in both counties and others in the state were left making up the difference.

According to the report, Morgan County actually had a surplus of reimbursements over requests of $76,897.

Galloway’s office finished an audit of the County Reimbursement Program in late December. The program reimburses counties for certain costs for housing and transporting state prisoners. The audit found that a combination of delayed payments to counties due to a lack of state funding and increasing incarceration costs has resulted in the necessity for counties to relay on local resources.

“Local taxpayers are left footing the bill because the state has not been keeping up its end of the deal and the cost of incarcerating state prisoners is increasing,” Galloway said in a news release. “This is an issue throughout Missouri but it is particularly concerning for smaller communities where revenue is especially limited. Our audit clearly outlines the facts and details the problems with this program so the legislature can evaluate the information and make changes.”

The 101st General Assembly convened last week.

Under state law, counties can be reimbursed for criminal costs, prisoner transportation and extradition costs for state prisoners. Counties submit claims throughout the year for these expenses and the Department of Corrections processes these payments on a first-come, first-served basis. However, state appropriations have not been sufficient to cover those claims.

As of June 30, the state owed about $31 million to counties it did not have the appropriation authority to pay. In fiscal year 2021, the General Assembly approved $52 million for county reimbursements, which includes $9.75 million for unpaid reimbursements. This addresses about a third of the outstanding claims still owed to counties.

The audit reported the Department of Corrections has not requested sufficient funds to pay the outstanding reimbursement claims and past budget requests haven’t included information about the previous years’ shortfalls. The audit recommended that the department request the money necessary to pay all obligations and ensure the financial history of the program is included so that legislators have an understanding of how much is owed to county governments.

Additionally, while the reimbursement rate paid by the state has kept up with inflation over the last 10 years, it is essentially the same as the rate paid in 1998. During this time incarceration costs have continued to increase. The state provides a reimbursement of $22.58 per day, but actual costs average closer to $49 a day. The increasing difference means counties have to subsidize the cost of housing these prisoners. The audit found that counties subsidized an estimated $41 million in incarceration costs for state prisoners during the 2020 fiscal year.

Auditors surveyed counties to better understand the impact of low reimbursement rates and delayed payments. According to these local officials, issues with state reimbursements resulted in not having enough revenue to cover jail costs and, as a result, having to reduce other services or increase local tax rates. Additionally, lack of revenue leads to difficulty in hiring new sheriffs’ employees due to low salaries or lack of equipment.

The audit also found inconsistencies in the law related to reimbursements. Under the law, the state reimbursement rate can go up to $37.50 a day, but is subject to appropriations. However, there are varying interpretations of the statute because this language is not consistent with how reimbursements are set (on a per day basis) and how state funds are appropriated (by year). The audit recommended that the legislature amend the statute to clarify the intent of the law so local officials can better understand what to expect from the state reimbursements.