Counties in South-Central Missouri are among the more than 100 owed money by the state government to offset the cost of housing inmates in local jails. State law requires once inmates being held on state charges are convicted, the department of corrections must reimburse county jails for the cost of housing such inmates during court proceedings. Across Missouri, the total unpaid debt currently owed by the state to county jails now exceeds $30 million.

A report released earlier this year by the Missouri Association of Counties details the total amount outstanding to counties was $31.7 million as of payments made the first quarter of the 2020 financial year. The current reimbursement paid by the state to county jails is $22.58 per day per inmate. That rate has remained the same the last three years and has only cumulatively risen eight cents since 1998, according to the MAC report.

“As a broad estimate I would say the current $22.58 rate covers around half the expense of housing an inmate,” says Dent County Sheriff Bob Wells. “It all depends inmate to inmate, whether they have medical needs, require additional attention and other factors. Overall, it’s fair to say the current payment amount doesn’t cover the basic cost, so we eat the rest of that unless we can collect board bills from inmates.”

The MAC report lists that as of Sept. 30, 2019:

• Phelps County’s share of unpaid debt is $389,507. Payments made subsequent to the report’s publishing have brought that total down to $313,265.

• Dent County’s debt was listed in the MAC report as $141,573 as of Sept. 30. Sheriff Wells says an October payment of $45,632 has since reduced the total, however, the rest remains outstanding.

• Amounts owed to neighboring counties are listed in the MAC report as including $264,495 to Pulaski County, $252,051 to Crawford County and $169,111 to Iron County.

• The largest debts owed by the state are $3.38 million to St. Louis County, $3.08 million to the City of St. Louis, $3.09 million to Greene County, $2.83 million to Jackson County, $1.06 million to Boone County and $1.05 million to St. Charles County.

“It is an unfortunate situation that local counties have to absorb that cost,” says Phelps County Sheriff Richard Lisenbe. “We still have to board these inmates. We still have to feed them, take care of them and transport them. But we are getting put in a position where we simply don’t get paid for it. For us, anytime you are talking about amounts in excess to a quarter-million dollars that is a big chunk of money.”

There are only five counties listed in the MAC report with no outstanding debt from the state.

Wells says the size of the unpaid debt and irregular payments from the state make it hard for his office to budget annual expenses.

“It’s hard to plan what you’ll be taking to the bank when you don’t know how much you’re going to be reimbursed, when the payment will arrive or if you’re even going to be paid at all for that matter,” Wells says. “I know $90,000 may not seem like a lot of money to someone in Jeff City, but for us that is an entire line item. Our jail-board expense alone last budget was approximately $172,000. The state payments go a long way toward helping us cover that. We have received a payment recently and things seem to be getting better. I hope the state keeps working in a positive direction.”

Lisenbe agrees.

“If we knew we were getting paid reasonably and regularly we could budget and plan around that so we could offer salary increases to help retain and recruit good people, or better address our equipment needs,” he says. “It’s hard to budget when this issue goes on for one, two and three years and you don’t know what you’re going to get paid out of that total, or if you’re going to get paid at all. We are fortunate here in Phelps County because we do well financially in taking care of the sheriff’s department, but there are other rural counties which struggle to make ends meet. It would be a big help to them to have the money they’re owed available.”

In addition to reimbursing for the number of days state inmates are incarcerated, county jails are also paid for expenses tied to returning state fugitives to custody and transporting inmates to prisons once convicted. All funds paid to counties must be appropriated through legislation, so payment amounts often differ year to year depending on requests and governor approval. Payments made to counties are also subject to auditing, so the local amount collected can change from what’s billed due to state documentation requirements.

Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish, president of the Missouri Sheriff’s Association, addressed the ongoing subject of unpaid state reimbursements in a recent letter to Missouri sheriffs. In it, Parrish cites from 1997 to 2019 total state reimbursements to local jails rose from $26 million to $34 million, while over that same period the budget for the state department of corrections and public safety saw an increase of $1 billion.

“An $8 million increase compared to a $1 billion increase clearly shows bureaucrats have been able to convince our state representatives that money is better to spend on Jefferson City initiatives rather than continuing a strong public safety partnership between state and local agencies. I am not convinced our taxpayer dollars are better spent in this way,” the Parrish letter states.