COLUMBIA — In a legislative move that has been compared to "stealing," the Missouri General Assembly last month approved as part of the state budget a 13 percent reduction in reimbursements to counties that house state prisoners.
Under the new budget, counties will receive $19.58 per prisoner per day, as opposed to the $22.50 per prisoner per day they were receiving.
Although the reduction might seem small, the actual cost of housing a state prisoner in Boone County is almost three times higher than the amount the county currently receives, said Karen Miller, Boone County Southern District commissioner. She estimated the actual amount is around $64 per prisoner per day once staffing, facility maintenance, food and other costs are taken into account.
"I think the state's trying to balance budgets on the backs of the counties," Miller said.
Chief Jailer Warren Brewer said the Boone County Jail houses an average of 80 state prisoners per year. The decrease in funding, he said, will amount to a $70,000 to $80,000 deficit in this year's budget.
"Someone's going to have to deal with the shortfall, and $70,000 is nothing to sneeze at," said Brewer.
Although Brewer said the county will deal with the deficit somehow, on Thursday morning he said no one had decided which programs to cut.
In a letter to Gov. Jay Nixon and leaders of the House and Senate, Terry W. Nichols, president of the County Commissioners Association of Missouri and the Iron County presiding commissioner, compared the move to ordering a full-pricemeal at a restaurant and then paying only half-price.
"This would be called stealing. And, this is exactly what the state of Missouri is doing to counties when you order us to provide you with the dollar service, but only pay us the 50 cents," Nichols wrote.
State-mandated housing of prisoners is not the only contentious issue for county commissioners. Nichols cited in his letter additional state-required obligations for counties, including election costs, assessment maintenance, spending on public defenders, juvenile office costs and circuit clerk costs.
Calling the situation "grossly unfair and illogical," Nichols asked that the legislature and the Office of the Governor fully fund these programs rather than expect counties to make up for discrepancies in the budget.
In response to the criticism, 24th District State Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said legislators' first obligation was to balance the budget.
"There's not one member of the House or Senate that wanted to decrease that line item," Kelly said, "but we're down more than $1 billion, and we've simply got to make cuts."
Compounding the frustration of county officials is the fact that state law prohibits them from revisiting their annual budgets once they have been established for the year — unless there is an increase in revenues. The relevant statute makes no provision for counties to amend their budgets in case of a decrease.