Corrections deputies and other workers at the Pierce County Jail are racking up overtime at a pace that could put them more than $1.8 million over budget this year – more than double the overrun that elected leaders were told about less than two weeks ago.
To help pay the bill, the county might have to redirect money from vacant patrol deputy positions.
Sheriff’s Department leaders attribute the high overtime costs to guarding more inmates with mental-health problems, staff shortages due to corrections deputies on disability and military leave, and the uncertainty caused by potential budget cuts.
The News Tribune obtained corrections overtime costs as of July 22 through a public records request last week.
The projection far exceeds the estimated $800,000 overrun that Pierce County Council members were told about at a six-month budget report July 31.
“I’m absolutely stunned by that information,” Council member Roger Bush, R-Frederickson, said Friday. He raised questions at the budget briefing last month about how far the amount could reach beyond $800,000.
“If a week later this thing has blown up, why wasn’t the council told?” he said Friday.
County Council members were already voicing frustrations on July 31 about the overtime costs.
“I just wonder how they got so far off,” said council member Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, after the meeting.
Some also were concerned that money they approved for crime-fighting might be needed to pay for corrections overtime.
Gary Robinson, the county’s budget and finance director, gave the report to the council on July 31. Just to get to that $800,000 figure, the Sheriff’s Department proposed diverting some money from 18 vacant corrections positions and making other cost cuts, Robinson said.
To reduce the gap further, he said his department asked the Sheriff’s Department to consider taking money saved in its law enforcement operations – including dollars budgeted for vacant patrol positions. That step would require the council’s approval.
Overtime spending for corrections is not a new problem for the Sheriff’s Department. The corrections bureau has overspent its overtime budget in each of the past five years, according to records.
“Every year we ask for more personnel and we seldom get them,” said Sheriff Paul Pastor.
His department is made up of two sections: the corrections bureau and law enforcement. There are 18 vacancies among more than 260 budgeted patrol deputies and detectives.
Bush says he’s frustrated by the vacancies. He said he’s also concerned that money for those jobs may be needed to pay for corrections overtime.
“We gave you money,” Bush said about Pastor and his department. “You have vacancies. You tested a zillion people (for patrol deputies),” Bush said in an early August interview. “Why is it so hard to hire people from other departments or just put troops on the ground?”
Bush said there’s been a rise in burglaries, car thefts and assaults in the Frederickson-Graham area.
“I’ve got crime out here skyrocketing,” he said.
Pastor said Friday he’s not surprised by Bush’s frustration. “I’m frustrated. I want to get more people out on the street.”
He said an increase in the number of inmates with mental-health problems is a major reason for corrections overtime.
With cutbacks at Western State Hospital in Lakewood and other state cuts, Pastor said, “The jail has become a cul-de-sac for mental-health issues.”
He said the jail, which has a maximum capacity of 1,400 inmates, has had as many as 20 inmates on suicide watch. It’s become a place of last resort to take mentally ill people who commit crimes, he said.
“It’s an inefficient place to deal with people who are seriously mentally ill, and that inefficiency is costing money,” Pastor said.
The sheriff said he’s working with other agencies to find alternatives for mentally ill offenders.
Pastor also cited the time it takes to hire corrections and patrol deputies – six months at a minimum – plus time for training. He said five new hires will join the law enforcement operation Aug. 20.
Law enforcement agencies around the state are having trouble filling vacancies, Pastor said.
In addition, the budget cycle and the possibility of budget cuts this year fuel the problem, he said. County Executive Pat McCarthy asked all departments last week to propose budgets for next year with 3-percent reductions.
Pastor said a cut of that size could reduce at least half of the total vacancies in the Sheriff’s Department.
“We need more staffing,” Pastor said. “I think it’s irresponsible if we hire people within six months of being told we can hire them and fire them six months later. That’s a poor use of public funds.”
The Sheriff’s Department did not provide a breakdown of how much overtime is being paid to corrections deputies, sergeants and lieutenants. The corrections department has 374 budgeted positions, including 275 corrections deputies.
Pastor said the vast majority of corrections overtime is paid to deputies. Based on their hourly wage scale, corrections officers earn from $50,960 to $66,061 a year, not including overtime. Overtime is paid at time-and-a-half the hourly wage.
This year’s annual budget for corrections overtime is $2.158 million. As of July 22, the corrections bureau had spent 94 percent of that amount.
The Sheriff’s Department projects overtime spending will reach $3.97 million by the end of year. That’s $1.8 million over budget, or 184 percent of budget.
Council members formed a group to meet with Pastor about staffing. The panel, comprised of Bush, Roach and Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, will meet with Pastor Monday behind closed doors.
Pastor said he’s not certain where money to pay for the corrections overtime costs will come from, especially if the department’s budget is cut by 3 percent. Since he’s been sheriff since 2001, the council has never used patrol dollars to pay for corrections costs, Pastor said.