The biggest chunk of Asotin County’s annual budget is earmarked for criminal justice, and the costs keep climbing, officials said Monday at a budget hearing.

Law and justice — which includes Superior and District courts, the Asotin County Jail, the sheriff’s office, the prosecutor’s office and indigent defense — consumes 72 percent of the general fund, Chief Operating Officer Chris Kemp said.

“We cannot continue spending at the rate we are without some kind of a revenue increase,” Kemp said.

Approving a public safety sales tax increase and collecting unpaid court fines and fees are two of the revenue-generating options under discussion. Kemp said the county is considering hiring a collection agency to go after outstanding court debts, which could bring in several million dollars.

Commissioner Brian Shinn said the board and court officials have discussed setting jail bonds at a “more realistic” amount to help alleviate the problem. If nonviolent offenders can get out of jail in a timely manner and remain employed, they are more likely to pay their fines and fees, Shinn said.

Housing inmates is expensive, especially when the Asotin County Jail is full and outside facilities have to be used, officials said.

Commissioner Jim Jeffords said a task force has been working on solutions for the cramped jail, such as adding more bed space. At this point, the facility only houses felons, and a probation officer is overseeing a growing number of offenders.

Jim Sargeant of Clarkston said the jail was poorly built and intended for a much smaller population. Asotin County needs to attract more businesses to offset the costs of public safety, he said.

Next week Asotin County Commissioners will take action on an overall budget of $24 million, with about $8.2 million earmarked for the general fund.

A recent $1.65 million settlement for Richard Eggleston of Asotin was not factored into the 2019 numbers, Kemp said. According to court documents, the county’s legal counsel has made a motion for a new trial in a civil case that went before jurors in Walla Walla Superior Court in October.

In other county news:

Jeffords said the cost of housing juveniles at Martin Hall in Medical Lake is going down next year. The bed rate has been reduced from $185 to $170 a day.

Martin Hall is doing better financially because Grant County is now sending juveniles to the regional facility, Jeffords said. The reduction in costs is expected to save Asotin County about $19,000 a year.

The commissioners turned down a $3,000 request from the Port of Clarkston for a grant application that would help support the cruise boat industry. Shinn said Asotin County researched the issue and the consensus is giving money to another tax-supported entity falls under “gifting of public funds.”

The county supports the port’s efforts and the cruise boat industry, but it does not seem “legal or appropriate” to grant the request, Shinn said. A letter will be sent to the port explaining the county’s position.

Sandaine may be contacted at kerris@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2264. Follow her on Twitter @newsfromkerri.