By Alex Bridges -- email@example.com
Warren County for years erroneously billed Front Royal to keep its prisoners at the jail, according to the town attorney.
But the town may not necessarily see a refund for the $19,800 it paid to the county, officials warned Monday.
Town Council at its work session learned Front Royal had given Warren County between $1,750 and $2,850 -- the latter paid so far this fiscal year -- for prisoners picked up by the police department and housed at the jail. The billing information provided by officials to Town Council showed Front Royal paid an average $2,118.75 per fiscal year from 2004 through 2011.
Town Attorney Douglas W. Napier told council his interpretation of the state code bars counties from charging incorporated towns within the jurisdiction for prisoners held at the jail. Napier also cited an opinion of the Virginia Attorney General's office which affirms his assertion.
"So in the absence of any law to say that the law has changed, I'm of the opinion the attorney general's opinion is still good," Napier told council. "Nobody's ever challenged it. It's been standing law for the last 30 years at least and as far as I'm concerned it's very clear."
The Attorney General's Office issued an opinion to the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office which asked if the county could bill the towns within the larger locality for prisoners taken from the smaller municipalities. The attorney general, citing Virginia code, stated that Rockingham could not bill the towns nor the city of Harrisonburg the cost to house inmates.
Front Royal likely will give notice to the county about its objection to the bills, Town Manager Steven M. Burke said.
More than one councilman questioned not only the billing by the county, but also whether Front Royal could seek a refund of the money it paid over the course of nine years.
Councilman N. Shae Parker asked if the county charging the town went against the law in the first place but other councilmen said it likely does not.
"I don't see where there would be any harm in at least approaching the county and saying 'although we will not be paying this in the future it would be nice if you could return some of the funds that we did pay up to this point," Parker said. "Worst they can say is 'no.'"
Napier advised that he saw the situation as the town voluntarily paid the money to the county.
"What I'm getting at is the county should choose to voluntarily pay what they erroneously billed us," Conkey said.
"I think it's worth asking," Mayor Timothy W. Darr said.
Jails such as the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center have agreements that dictate how localities served by the facility pay to house prisoners. The regional jail divides local funding costs among Clarke, Frederick and Fauquier counties and Winchester, then calculates what a jurisdiction pays depending on how many prisoners it sends to the facility. An agreement would take the funding and payment issue "out of the statute," Napier explained.
Even if Warren County enters a funding agreement with the regional jail, to include Shenandoah and Rappahannock counties, Napier said the county would not have the authority to bill Front Royal for its prisoners.
The police department had discussed the issue with the previous town attorney, Burke told council.