Pierce County Council members support jail layoffs

Staff writerSeptember 9, 2013 

Members of a key Pierce County Council committee Monday supported laying off 16 corrections deputies to help fill a $5 million shortfall in the county jail’s operations.

Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald said the jail’s system of contracting out beds to offset costs has failed because cities find cheaper rates at other jails. She said the jail needs a new business model.

“The old one doesn’t work anymore,” said McDonald, R-Puyallup. “As much as we want it to work, we’re in a new day and a new time.”

But Sheriff Paul Pastor said his department needs to seek new contracts with jurisdictions to send their inmates to the jail, even though the loss of Tacoma’s contract in January led to the budget crisis.

“We need to get back into the rental business,” Pastor said. “We need to be sure that we have staff in order to move in that direction.”

In the long term, Pastor maintained rates could be lowered to attract new customers and regain some of Tacoma’s business.

“I think we can still talk about doing this contract approach and I would like to continue speaking to you about that,” Pastor told McDonald.

“Thank you, sheriff,” McDonald said.

Council member Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor, said he supported the $3 million cut to the jail’s budget “with reservations” because he wasn’t satisfied with the budget outlook he heard Monday. 

Later, the council’s Rules and Operations Committee voted 3-0 to recommend County Executive Pat McCarthy’s supplemental budget for this year. It calls for demoting four corrections officers and laying off 16 corrections deputies.

Emily Holznagel, 22, who’s been working as a corrections deputy for four months, is one of the 16.

She asked the committee Monday to reconsider the cutback.

“Please remember you are a public servant,” Holznagel said.

“Your role is to serve the people, not the money,” she told council members. “We are people; we have lives and families to care for.”

McCarthy proposed cutting the jail’s budget by $3 million after months of meetings with Pastor, his staff and other county leaders about the jail’s deficit.

“He has an operation that lost two big customers so he needed to make some adjustments,” McCarthy said in an interview. “We just can’t keep the status quo.”

Undersheriff Eileen 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 county jail incurs higher costs than smaller jails because it must accept felons -- including inmates with serious mental illness -- who require higher levels of security and treatment. In effect, lower-level inmates have subsidized higher-level inmates.

In her 2013 supplemental budget, McCarthy recommends filling the rest of the $5 million shortfall with $2 million from reserves and increased sales tax revenue.

The full, seven-member council is scheduled to vote on McCarthy’s supplemental budget Sept. 17.

Her plan also would increase spending for the new Parkland precinct for the Sheriff’s Department from $2.1 million to $3.1 million. Council members wanted to know why the initial cost estimate for the project was off by nearly 50 percent.

Mike Poier, construction division manager, cited several unanticipated costs: replacing a water distribution line, adding ventilation and improving the electrical system. The precinct is scheduled to open in early 2014.

McCarthy’s pending plan also includes an intrafund loan of up to $1 million to design a proposed $67 million county administration building.

Corrections deputy Deborah Hopkins noted the building project in her comments opposing the jail cuts. Hopkins suggested the county could rent out the new section of the jail which she said is nearly empty.

In her 15 years as a corrections deputy, Hopkins said, “This is the worst time I’ve ever seen.  

“You guys have cut us and cut us and cut us,” she said. “At some point, one of us is going to get hurt.”

 

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 steve.maynard@thenewstribune.com @TNTstevemaynard

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