Jail operations shortfall leads to 16 deputy layoffs

County jail is losing inmates to Fife, leaving the budget $5 million shy

Staff writerSeptember 8, 2013 

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department is laying off 16 corrections deputies and demoting four corrections officers because of a $5 million shortfall in the county jail's operations.

Employees were notified Friday after months of private talks by county leaders on how to deal with the shortfall resulting from Tacoma and Lakewood sending their misdemeanor bookings to jails that charge lower rates.

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy has proposed cutting the jail's budget by $3 million this year to make up part of the shortfall, which put pressure on the Sheriff's Department to make the layoffs. In her 2013 supplemental budget, McCarthy also recommends filling the rest of the gap with $2 million from reserves and increased sales tax revenue.

In statements Friday, McCarthy and the Sheriff's Department clashed over the layoffs.

McCarthy said the county had to make "unfortunate cuts" due to the two cities sending their misdemeanor inmates to other jails.

"Keep this in mind: Those cities are still arresting people; they are just taking them to places other than the regional jail that voters approved, " she said.

Sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said the cuts were a result of McCarthy's proposed reduction.

Sheriff Paul Pastor "fought hard to stay in the contracting business, " Troyer said.

"Our direction from above was to make the cuts, " said Troyer, referring to McCarthy's office.

Pastor released a terse statement: "We run the jail based on available resources. We are making cuts due to a reduction in resources."

A County Council committee will review McCarthy's jail cuts and other parts of her supplemental budget Monday. Final council action is scheduled for Sept. 17.

In addition to the layoffs, nine vacant corrections deputy positions and one vacant sergeant slot at the jail will be eliminated, Undersheriff Eileen Bisson said.

The layoffs will take effect Oct. 2. Two days earlier, three sergeants and one lieutenant will be demoted because their positions will no longer be needed.

Despite the layoffs, the jail's budget crisis will continue into next year. Bisson said the jail is projected to rack up another shortfall of more than $6.5 million in 2014.

Bisson said the Sheriff's Department is working to reduce the jail's budgeted population to 1,200 - the target established by the county's budget and finance department. The jail count Thursday was 1,297.

"This means we need to close a unit, which takes time, " Bisson said.

McCarthy's proposed $3 million cut would reduce the jail's 2013 budget of $52.5 million by nearly 6 percent. That budget originally included 266 corrections deputy positions.

In December, Tacoma City Council members approved an agreement with the city of Fife to send low-level arrestees to Fife's 36-bed jail for less money. The City of Lakewood reached a similar agreement with Fife in 2009.

Fife charges about $20 for booking inmates, plus $65 per day per prisoner. Pierce County charges $212 for booking inmates, plus $85 per day.

After Tacoma pulled out of the county jail, one 84-bed unit - called a pod - was closed on Jan. 1, reducing the jail's budgeted capacity to 1,381 inmates. Nine unfilled corrections deputy positions were eliminated.

In April, a 12-bed unit for suicidal and other inmates requiring "high intensity management" was shut down, Bisson said. Then in August, another 84-bed pod was closed, she said.

In May, Pastor said the deficit was $4.2 million and 30 jobs would be eliminated. With fewer jail beds to produce revenue, it's now grown to $5 million.

In reducing the jail's population, Bisson said no inmates will be released early. However, some jurisdictions that have contracts with the jail may have to move their inmates elsewhere.

"Bottom line is we must keep the door open for felony arrests, " she said.

In effect, lower-level inmates have subsidized higher-level inmates.

The county jail incurs higher costs than smaller jails because it must accept felons - including inmates with serious mental illnesses - who require higher levels of security and treatment.

Brian Blowers, president of the Corrections Deputies Guild, said Friday he knew layoffs were coming but didn't know how many.

"I'm completely outraged, " Blowers said before the layoffs were announced. "We're basically closing the doors to the jail. We're not taking anybody in."

Speaking to the County Council last week , McCarthy said the county is exploring a wide range of options to deal with the crisis, including home monitoring, expanded court services and switching from a flat rate to a variable rate. A jail rate study is due to be completed by October.

McCarthy also said she will talk to the Legislature next year about inequities in jail operations.

"We are required to take care of felons, and cities have the luxury, in my opinion, to be able to shop around, " McCarthy said.

She said the county has invested in the jail as a regional facility, and it should be used first "before we allow folks to be able to shop around like they're doing."

But those options won't resolve the jail crisis in time for next year's budget. Her proposed budget for 2014 is due to be released Sept. 23.

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