Someone has to foot the bill when the prison door slams shut.

For local government, the Missouri Department of Corrections is supposed to pay the cost of incarceration for state prisoners, even when that inmate starts off in the county jail.

But the state remains behind in its obligation to jails across the state, including more than $500,000 owed to Buchanan County

since September.

“Obviously, it’s frustrating for everybody,” said Bill Puett, the Buchanan County sheriff. “It’s frustrating on the local level, obviously, because those funds can be used in other areas to serve the community or enhance services that we don’t have because the funding’s not there.”

The exact amount owed to Buchanan County is $557,921 to house inmates who ultimately are convicted of felonies and transferred into the state prison system. As of 2018, the state owed $2.5 million to the city of St. Louis and nearly $1.9 million to Jackson County in Kansas City.

Buchanan County Presiding Commissioner Lee Sawyer said the amount owed has decreased in recent months, but it’s still a concern.

“We’re able to cover it, but it makes us nervous,” he said.

Counties have long complained the state is slow to reimburse on inmate costs. The state tends to pay quarterly, when the Department of Corrections receives an appropriation, then waits another 90 days before making another payment.

Puett said the last payment to Buchanan County came in April.

“This is in the normal realm for what we’re owed,” Puett said. “We’ve been owed more. Sometimes we’re owed less.”

Across the state, counties have expressed concern that the state not only pays late, but it pays $22.58 per inmate when the state law specifies a rate of $37.

In an Associated Press story, the sheriff of Cass County estimated the daily cost of incarceration at about $65 a day, per prisoner.

Buchanan County’s jail held 185 inmates last week, which is below its capacity of 225. The county budgeted $838,500 for jail operations this year, up 20 percent in just two years.

A Department of Corrections spokesperson did not return calls for comment. In a January legislative hearing, the department’s director said more state funding may be needed to cover costs.

Sawyer said Gov. Mike Parson addressed county commissioners from across the state at a meeting earlier this year. The first thing the governor mentioned was his desire for the state to pay its bills.

“He knew was the first thing every commissioner was thinking about,” Sawyer said.

Greg Kozol can be reached at greg.kozol@newspressnow.com.