Missouri’s counties have a debt problem. Or maybe it’s the state that has the debt problem. It needs to pay counties back $19 million. And it’s not paying them back very quickly.  KBIA’s Grace Lett tells us how a bureaucratic disagreement means fewer officers on the roads. 

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County jails seek timely reimbursement from state

By: Madison Fleck, Grace Lett, Jake Cookson and Hailey Hofer

In Callaway County, Missouri, operating on a low budget is a norm. And receiving money from the state isn’t something that’s expected to happen in a timely manner. The county goes about its business and plans its budget assuming the state won’t pay on time.

For Callaway County, it means pulling deputies off the road to work the jail. For Pike County, it means leaving positions unfilled.

The State of Missouri owes its counties nearly $19 million in jail reimbursements, and this number has been accumulating for years. Of course, the issue is more complex, but one thing is for certain: Missouri owes its counties a lot of money, and there’s not much the counties can do about it.

The state legislature allocates more than $40 million each year to reimburse counties for the costs of housing some inmates, a sum distributed quarterly in increments of roughly $10 million. But it’s not enough. And it’s complicated by lots of red tape.

Counties have incorrectly charged the state more than $6 million in the past year, according to Department of Corrections Communications Director, Karen Pojmann.

While these incorrect charges were caught through a new auditing process, Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, says it’s likely the state has overpaid some counties for years.

“So if you take that over the last seven, eight  or 10 years and assume that you’ve had that many dollars worth of invoices that should’ve been paid, then that adds up to a lot of money pretty quick,” Fitzpatrick said. “That could be part of what’s contributing to the idea that the state is behind on paying these invoices to the counties.”

For the state, it’s a matter of going back and auditing to try and figure out which counties have been given too much money. But until the corrections department can find the time and resources to go back and re-check the payments it’s made to counties over the years, there’s no plan to allocate more money in the budget to these county reimbursements, according to Fitzpatrick.

Missouri dedicates resources to estimate the amount of money counties will need to be reimbursed for housing state inmates before their trial date and while they’re awaiting transportation to a state facility. But this number can be difficult to estimate, and once those funds run dry, there’s no more money for the counties.

Missouri isn’t the only state that reimburses its counties for housing inmates. In fact, most states reimburse their counties in one way or another, and some states have more issues with this than others.

In Tennessee, holding state prisoners in county jails has led to overcrowding in its prisons, according to a letter a jail administrator sent to the Tennessean newspaper. And in Tulsa County, Oklahoma, the county sued the Oklahoma correction department for $10 million in April, claiming that state reimbursements did not cover the costs of housing inmates, according to an article in Tulsa World.

While other states’ counties see issues with overcrowding in jails and money received per inmate, issues in Missouri counties center around receiving only small portions of the full amount they’re owed in reimbursements.

Callaway County received a check from the state on Oct. 4 for roughly $5,000, according to County Commissioner Gary Jungermann, which is 17 percent of what the county is owed.

“It’s just chicken feed,” Jungermann said. “It’s frustrating because we have to wait six, seven or eight months sometimes to get that reimbursement.”

The corrections department is aware of the issue. Since the new director took over in February, Pojmann said the department has dedicated staff members to handling the reimbursements.

Missouri legislators plan to work on a way to resolve the problem in the upcoming legislative session, but there is currently no plan to change the state statute.

“It would be challenging to remove that support at this point,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s such a key part of the financial models in these counties that they rely on.”

Looking forward, Fitzpatrick said the legislature will focus on how to best audit payments that have been made to counties in the last decade to ensure counties have not been overpaid. He said he suspects everything will even out.

“As far as how to correct it moving forward, there’s going to have to be a lot of discussion about that with the office administration and the Department of Corrections,” Fitzpatrick said. “And, quite frankly, the local governments.”