The small City of Buckley is moving to close its 28-bed jail this winter amid a budget crunch – a move that will send ripples around Pierce County.
The jail has contracts to hold inmates from roughly 20 other communities and agencies, from Bonney Lake and Sumner to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. It’s also the site of a work-release program.
But operations costs have grown in recent years as demand has dipped. The City Council this week agreed to close the jail – a move that’s likely to happen by Dec. 1.
“It was tough, really tough,” said Mayor Pat Johnson. “There’s been great debate. We’ve looked at every figure six or seven times. It just didn’t pencil out.”
Buckley is not the only local jail operator to see its costs soar. The much larger Pierce County Jail has watched its overtime costs swell this year due to staff shortages, an increase in inmates with mental-health problems and the uncertainty of potential budget cuts – a situation that could lead the county to redirect money from vacant patrol positions.
Buckley Police Chief Jim Arsanto said his jail’s overall operating expenses have grown $20,000 to $30,000 annually over the last several years due to factors from the rising cost of medical benefits for workers to increasing utility bills.
This year’s jail budget is about $530,000. The jail recently has averaged 19 to 22 inmates a day.
The jail also has seen demand fall off, with a rise in incarceration alternatives such as home monitoring and competition from larger facilities such as the new South Correctional Entity in Des Moines.
Meanwhile, the city of 4,300 residents is “trying to head off a deficit” in its general operating fund next year, Johnson said. That fund, which this year is around $4 million, covers day-to-day government operations in Buckley, including the jail.
“We’re having to look carefully at, what is our core service?” Johnson said “Police and fire – of course. But jail? That’s not necessarily a core service.”
Other East Pierce communities also are dealing with tough financial realities in the tight economy.
Orting officials recently approved a $20 car-tab fee to pay for roadwork. Eatonville earlier this year considered disbanding its police force and contracting with Pierce County. The Town Council rejected the idea after a public outcry.
Along with the jail closure, the Buckley City Council this week also took steps to shut down the city’s dispatch center, which operates out of the same building as the jail. That closure isn’t guaranteed, Johnson said, but could happen next year.
Buckley must give its jail contract holders 90 days notice; officials said that should happen soon.
The jail and dispatch operations employ a total of about 10 full-time workers. Arsanto said the city is contacting its guild and will “explore all options within its means to help in finding jobs” for them.