JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri sheriffs are seeking to boost pay and address costs for housing jail inmates.
An interim House committee is studying sheriffs' operations and plans to propose legislation that could be considered when state lawmakers return to the Capitol in January for their 2013 session. The committee has focused on topics that include sheriff salaries, mandates on sheriffs and county jails and whether to require candidates for sheriff to have a peace officer's license.
Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond said nearly every inmate who comes into his 210-bed west-central Missouri jail is accused of violating a state law and amounts to a state prisoner. Yet, he said, the sheriff's office and local taxpayers cover many of the costs for food, medical care and housing.
"We're seeing the counties being crippled on an ever-increasing basis, and I think that's creating an issue where the partnership is beginning to erode between the state and the counties," Bond said.
He estimated that it costs about $45 per day for each inmate. State government currently pays $19.58 of that cost.
The sheriffs have suggested allowing jails to be part of state government's contract for prison medical services and allowing counties to be reimbursed in more instances for housing jail inmates. Other ideas include establishing a central collection agency to intercept tax refunds and lottery winnings to pay off inmates' debts, levying a booking fee and encouraging judges to order defendants to pay back holding costs.
Lawrence County Sheriff Brad DeLay said if people can find money to buy alcohol, cigarettes or illegal drugs, then "they can find the money to take care of some of their debts that they owe to society." He said the southwestern Missouri county budgets $600,000 to $700,000 for its 54-bed jail and loses $80,000 to $90,000 from unpaid board bills.
DeLay said buying food in bulk has saved some money. He keeps a constant menu of oatmeal for breakfast, a bologna sandwich for lunch and beans and cornbread for supper.
Rep. Don Ruzicka, a former state conservation agent and the chairman of the interim committee, said state government and the sheriffs need to work together.
"The people they're arresting there and the people they're protecting are all our concerns," said Ruzicka, R-Mount Vernon.
Sheriffs also suggested that pay raises could help ensure qualified people continue serving in those offices.
The Missouri Sheriffs' Association said a good starting point for the discussion would be a salary of $75,000 because it aligns with sergeants in the Missouri State Highway Patrol. They also suggest linking sheriff salaries to full-time prosecutors' and trial judges' so they are not left behind when other public safety officials get a raise.
Figures provided to the House committee show that for this year, 106 sheriffs earn less than $75,000. The average pay statewide for a sheriff is roughly $50,000. The lowest wage is $24,102 in northwestern Missouri's rural Worth County, and the highest pay is $110,000 in Boone County, which includes Columbia.
In 2008, Missouri lawmakers sought to boost the pay of sheriff deputies by creating a $10 charge for serving legal documents. Lawmakers passed the fee after learning deputies in 91 counties were paid so little in 2007 that some qualified for public assistance. The statewide average wage for a deputy that year was $22,262 annually.