County Council delays vote on laying off corrections deputies

Staff writerSeptember 17, 2013 

The Pierce County Council postponed a decision Tuesday on laying off 16 corrections deputies so the county can explore early retirements, part-time positions and furloughs as alternatives to making a $3 million cut.

Council member Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, made the motion for the one-week delay, saying she hadn’t heard previously about options suggested by deputies at Tuesday’s council meeting.

The delay doesn’t mean the council will find money to fend off layoffs at the county jail, Ladenburg said, but she wants to explore the alternatives. The council voted 4-2 to put off the decision until Tuesday.

Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, and Vice Chairman Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, voted “no,” saying the budget will still need to be cut because of a $5 million shortfall in the Sheriff’s Department’s budget for corrections. Council member Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor, was absent.

Other council members supported taking more time to examine budget solutions and to meet with corrections deputies.

Jail deputies pleaded with the council to delay the vote and gather more information. At least two dozen deputies attended the meeting in the packed council chambers. More than a dozen addressed the council.

Sgt. Sabrina Braswell questioned why the council, Undersheriff Eileen Bisson and Sheriff Paul Pastor “have never asked us a team, as a family what we can do to save ourselves?”

“They didn’t ask for a hiring freeze,” Braswell said. “They didn’t ask us to voluntarily lay ourselves off. They didn’t ask us to voluntarily take a furlough day every now and again. ... They didn’t ask for buyouts. They didn’t ask for voluntary retirements.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said in an interview Tuesday night that “the sheriff’s willing to look at any way to save money and save jobs.” But Troyer added it’s not clear who would decide whether to offer early retirements or to shift workers to part-time positions.

McDonald said job-sharing and retirements had been discussed at meetings about reducing the jail’s budget but apparently those suggestions didn’t reach the level of the bargaining unit.

Erik Neils told the council he is one of the 16 that would be laid off.

“Here comes the sad part,” Neils said. “Two brand new babies. Decided we should start a family now that I had good civil service job that was secure.”

He said the vote should be delayed, but not just for his personal benefit.

If 16 people get let go, Neils said the council should make sure someone is held accountable to prevent more layoffs.

“There should not be another 16,” Neils said.

As they told the council Sept. 10, many deputies said inmates are being turned away at the jail and set free.

During 20 years at the jail, corrections deputy Erika Thompson said she’s been kicked, punched and choked. Deputies vests are outdated and other equipment is old, she said.

Pointing her comments at McDonald, Thompson said, “You have said personally inmates aren’t going free. I can tell you as a booking officer inmates are going free.”

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy proposes 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.

The shortfall resulted from Tacoma and Lakewood sending their misdemeanor bookings to jails that charge lower rates.

While laying off deputies is hard and unfortunate, McCarthy told the council, “If we don’t address this today, we’re going to have an even greater hole next year.”

Union leaders for the deputies were pleased by the delay.

“I’m encouraged that they’re going to put some more thought into it,” said Doug Watkins, vice president of the Corrections Deputies Guild. “I’m encouraged that hopefully we can save some jobs.”

Guild secretary Bruce Parks said he’s “cautiously optimistic.”

“We have 16 young officers and we don’t want to see them laid off,” he said.

Pastor attended Tuesday’s meeting but did not make comments.

When asked Monday if deputies will be relatively safe working in the jail if the cuts are made, Pastor said, “I believe they will be.”

“I can’t make my people unsafe,” he said during a meeting with The News Tribune’s editorial board.

Pastor also was asked Monday whether arrestees are being let out on the street instead of being booked as some corrections deputies assert. “I don’t know the answer to that,” he said.

Pastor said that as jail space is being closed down, the Sheriff’s Department has been turning away offenders from the state Department of Corrections.

Mac Pevey, a field administrator with the Department of Corrections, told The News Tribune that state inmates have been turned away for the past two weeks but are being jailed elsewhere for violating their community supervision.

In addition to the jail layoffs that would be effective at the beginning of October, nine vacant corrections deputy positions and one vacant sergeant slot at the jail would be eliminated.

Three sergeants and one lieutenant also would be demoted because their positions will no longer be needed.

Council member Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said he was “incredibly frustrated” about having to make a $5 million correction with relatively short notice.

Roach said he was willing to go along with the three other council members and put off a decision. But he added he didn’t think the delay would change the outcome of cutting the budget.

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