Tacoma's shift away from jail brings hard time to Pierce County

Staff writerNovember 10, 2013 

Last year, Tacoma talked to Pierce County and complained about the costs to house city inmates at the county jail.

The price was too high, the city said.

The county replied with a counter-offer: higher prices.

Tacoma, the county’s biggest jail customer, walked away, severing an exclusive relationship that had lasted 30 years. The City of Destiny started sending its low-level arrestees (about 144 a month) to jails in Fife and Des Moines, where rates were cheaper.

Savings to Tacoma: $1.6 million and counting.

Loss to Pierce County: an estimated $5 million a year. Translation: 252 jail beds closed, 16 corrections deputies laid off and another 14 positions cut via attrition or retirement.

Tacoma’s decision punched a hole in the county’s $52.5 million jail budget, and started a fiscal fight that continues to this day. More layoffs could follow as county leaders try to close the money gap.

Meanwhile, a still newish county jail stands half-empty in downtown Tacoma. It opened 10 years ago — built with $59.2 million in taxpayer money, designed for low-level inmates, pitched and pushed by county leaders as a tonic for overcrowding. It’s linked to the older, higher-security section of the county jail, which still stands and houses the bulk of the county’s felons.

A voter-approved sales tax passed in 1996 pays the debt for the new jail’s construction — it’s a 30-year mortgage, with the final payoff in 2025.

The tax generates a penny for every $10 at the cash register. It has no expiration date. In 2012, it brought in $11.5 million. About $2.5 million of that goes to debt service, the rest to jail operations.

A decade after opening, the entire fourth floor of the new jail is a glorified storage unit: no inmates, but ample space for box loads of potato chips. The third floor is half-full. To save money and hold down capacity, the jail is turning some low-level arrestees away – the same arrestees the jail was designed to house.

Records of the turndowns show up in Tacoma police reports. Corrections deputies have mentioned the practice in public meetings, and sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer confirms it. “That is happening,” he said.

One county leader, speaking privately, calls the 10-year-old jail “a fixed monument to human stupidity.”

The Pierce County Jail is running in the red after the city of Tacoma opted not to contract for misdemeanor inmates.The Pierce County Jail is running in the red after the city of Tacoma opted not to contract for misdemeanor inmates.

THE SPLIT

Publicly, no one blames anyone for the breakup between Tacoma and Pierce County. Leaders from all sides say so repeatedly.

“We’re not alone – this is not just endemic to Pierce County, it’s across the state,” County Executive Pat McCarthy said. Cost overruns at the jail force her to raid and cut other county programs every year – and overall public safety costs already consume close to 80 percent of the county budget.

“What has transpired has transpired,” said Sheriff Paul Pastor, who manages the jail and admits its costs are an annual headache.

“So we have to talk about where we go from here, because there’s important stuff to do from here,” he said. “It isn’t just making nice. It’s what I think people should expect us to do.”

Interviews with key players and a survey of internal records from the county, the city and the Sheriff’s Department tell the story of what happened in the summer and fall of 2012.

In the official version, Tacoma simply acts in its best interests and finds a way to save money on jail costs for low-level inmates. The county executive’s office, equally concerned about cost control and unable to match Fife’s rate, stands on the sidelines while the sheriff negotiates with the city, to no avail. The county waves goodbye to its biggest jail customer, more in sorrow than in anger, and turns to the seemingly perpetual problem of reducing jail spending.

In the deleted-scenes version, the county executive’s office dictates the terms of negotiation. County leaders assume the city will cave and dismiss warnings to the contrary from the Sheriff’s Office. The county floats a contract offer that freezes rates and withdraws it three days before a proffered deadline.

Miffed, city leaders start a quiet negotiation with Fife and don’t tell the county. County budget analysts instruct the sheriff’s negotiators to send the city a take-it-or-leave-it offer with price increases across the board.

Negotiations fall apart. The city walks away. The county steps into a fiscal crater.

THE BACK AND FORTH

When Tacoma formally announced its departure in December, it was the culmination of almost a year of negotiations. County leaders had known of the prospect since January 2012, records show.

All parties knew the city’s 10-year exclusive contract with the jail was set to expire at the end of the year. County budget leaders hoped to recover full costs for Tacoma’s misdemeanants and argued for rates that came close to that goal.

A new deal was far from certain. Tacoma could send its inmates elsewhere — for instance to Yakima County. Lakewood had done just that in 2009, pulling out of its Pierce County contract and sending low-level arrestees east of the Cascades for a cheaper rate.

“Low-level” meant everyone but felons. Under state law, county jails must accept felons, no matter who arrests them. Counties pay full freight for that — it’s a mandatory population. Counties also pay full freight for their own misdemeanants: people charged with low-level crimes and arrested by sheriff’s deputies.

The city-county clash centered on city misdemeanants, the sole category where counties can charge a fee for jail service on a contract basis. Tacoma, like other Pierce County cities, had sent misdemeanants to the county jail for three decades under various versions of an exclusive arrangement, and the latest contract was about to expire.

County budget leaders devised several new contract options. The sweetest, a fallback in case Tacoma threatened to leave, was a four-year exclusive deal with no rate increases in 2013, and rate hikes in subsequent years. The two key pieces looked like this:

  • Daily rate: $85
  • Booking fee: $213

Aaron Bemiller, then the county’s budget manager, explained the strategy in an email to McCarthy and her leadership team.

“As you can see, the enticement here is to help the City with costs in the short run and make us whole by the end of 2016. … If the City walks away from any exclusivity deal, we discuss other options.”

The county sent the offer to Tacoma in February 2012. Assistant Chief Pete Cribbin, who was handling negotiations for the Police Department, recalled it as a full-court press.

“They thought they had a stacked deck,” Cribbin said. “They were putting a lot of pressure on us.”

The Police Department wasn’t quite ready to say yes. The inner circle of commanders was in the midst of a reshuffle. Four months passed. A meeting scheduled for late May 2012 was canceled. Records state Tacoma police leaders still were looking at their own budget prospects, not ready to decide.

The city’s jail costs had ballooned by 48 percent, from $8.1 million in 2007-08 to $12.1 million in 2011-12, though the number of inmates had remained fairly flat. County leaders say the city’s big bills reflected a surge of inmates with mental health problems. Those inmates cost twice as much to handle, according to jail records.

By mid-July, county leaders still were waiting for an answer from Tacoma, tracking increased jail costs, and hoping to avoid a last-minute budget rush later in the year.

Another month went by. Tacoma didn’t respond until Aug. 15, when Cribbin asked for all materials related to contract negotiations. Julie Williams, the sheriff’s manager of contract services, promptly sent the terms the county had offered since February, including the offer to freeze rates at current levels for the first year. A negotiation meeting was tentatively set for Aug. 30.

Cribbin didn’t know it, but the county was about to pull the rug from under the city’s feet.

Safety of corrections officers and the ability to respond to unrest in the Pierce County Jail is a concern for 23-year veteran Jose Perez-Santiago. Before the recent layoff of 16 corrections officers, Perez-Santiago said there would have been two other guards able to respond to trouble on the third-floor pods. Now he’s the only guard available to respond to assist a single guard supervising 84 inmates.Safety of corrections officers and the ability to respond to unrest in the Pierce County Jail is a concern for 23-year veteran Jose Perez-Santiago. Before the recent layoff of 16 corrections officers, Perez-Santiago said there would have been two other guards able to respond to trouble on the third-floor pods. Now he’s the only guard available to respond to assist a single guard supervising 84 inmates.

OFFER OFF THE TABLE

The critical moment came Aug. 27, three days before the scheduled meeting with Tacoma. County leaders met privately to discuss next steps. The players included Gary Robinson, the county’s budget and finance director; Al Rose, executive director of county justice services; Williams, the sheriff’s contract manager; Undersheriff Eileen Bisson; and Rob Masko, then the sheriff’s chief of jail services.

A sworn affidavit signed by Williams and Masko describes the discussion. The county executive’s budget analysts wanted to drop their earlier offer to freeze rates at current levels.

“Gary Robinson communicated that we need to take the approach with Tacoma that the earlier proposal is off the table,” the affidavit states. “We need to take a look at full cost recovery and also a mental health rate.”

Masko and Williams, representing the sheriff, warned against the approach. It might be a bad play, they said. The county didn’t have a monopoly on jail beds. Tacoma could go elsewhere, and the county budget would take a big hit.

Rose was skeptical, according to the affidavit. He suggested Tacoma would be short-sighted to leave — the city might get short-term savings and a long-term headache.

“Where else are they going to take their inmates?” he said. “There aren’t options.”

Yes, there were options, Williams said. Tacoma could contract with Yakima County — just as Lakewood did three years earlier, for lower prices. Tacoma could send low-level inmates to the new Nisqually Corrections Center in Thurston County — just as Lakewood did, for lower prices.

The county budget analysts were unmoved.

“Instructions from the Executive office and Budget and Finance is to negotiate a higher rate and see what they say,” Williams wrote in a memo of the meeting.

Williams followed instructions. She sent a note to Cribbin at the Police Department, canceling the Aug. 30 meeting and erasing the rate proposal sent to Tacoma only 11 days earlier.

“I am also sorry to say that the proposal that we provided to TPD last February and that was recently scanned to you … is off the table. Unfortunately, the County is facing major fiscal challenges to include rising costs in the jail for a variety of reasons. With the fiscal analysis, it is clear that the proposal we offered will not meet the fiscal requirements of the County.”

— Williams email to Cribbin, Aug. 27, 2012

Faced with a multimillion-dollar negotiation and the prospect of the county’s biggest jail customer walking away because of high prices, county budget analysts remained determined to push the city for more money.

They had previously pondered one olive branch: an offer to hold off on a rate increase. Now they were taking it off the table, three days ahead of the Aug. 30 meeting.

From Tacoma’s standpoint, the county’s move felt like a slap. The downtown jail was convenient, and the city’s officers knew the routines, but the city’s jail costs had jumped by 48 percent in four years. The bill was topping $500,000 a month. Now the county was asking for even more and reneging on its offer to freeze rates.

That was the tipping point, according to Cribbin. If the county had preserved the offer to freeze rates for the first year, the city probably would have stayed.

“If they would have just said that, we never would have left,” he said. “That’s my blunt assessment. That would have saved us a million and a half.”

The next day — Aug. 28 — Masko sent a note to Cribbin, asking about negotiations.

“Please don’t count us out just yet,” the sheriff’s then-chief of jail services wrote.

“Thanks, Rob,” the assistant chief replied. “Obviously our preference is PCSO (Pierce County), but we are also under the serious budget gun right now. Hopefully we can work something out which helps both agencies out.”

It was a turning point, but county leaders didn’t know it. Over the next few weeks, Tacoma quietly fished for options and cast an eye toward Fife.

The small city to the north had a novel proposal: a jail brokerage service. Fife would accept Tacoma’s low-level arrestees, house some in its own jail and ship others to jails around the state. The rates undercut the county’s offer by a wide margin:

  • Daily rate: $65 ($20 less)
  • Booking fee: $20 ($193 less)

At an internal meeting Sept. 25, 2012, Tacoma police leaders weighed their options. A record of the discussion appears in meeting minutes:

“Pierce County recently sent a TPD commander their latest version of expected costs for using the PC Jail for the upcoming two years (2013-14), along with a four-year option. … Pierce County then withdrew this ‘new’ contract, saying they were working on a revision.”

— Meeting minutes, Sept. 25, 2012

The minutes show Tacoma pondering jails in Fife, Puyallup and Des Moines, where a new misdemeanor jail had opened in 2011. The South Correctional Entity (SCORE), funded by a consortium of seven King County cities, catered to low-level arrestees.

All the candidates charged lower prices than Pierce County. The options were tempting, but Tacoma’s brain trust fretted over details, chiefly escort services to and from court (or hospitals, if arrestees needed urgent medical care).

The county jail guaranteed escort, even if the fees were high. Fife didn’t.

That was a big deal — a personnel cost and a time-drain. Sticking with the county meant county corrections deputies rather than Tacoma cops would take inmates to court, a major convenience. Plus, the jail and the county courthouse were connected. Deputies could walk an inmate from a jail cell to an elevator to a courtroom in a matter of minutes.

As things stood, switching to Fife would mean more windshield time, and Tacoma officers working court escort duty instead of the streets. Plus, Fife’s jail brokerage wouldn’t accept female arrestees.

Tacoma hadn’t rejected the county yet, but the city was wavering.

Unused manacles hang on a pillar last month in the booking area of the Pierce County Jail. The loss of Tacoma inmates means less to do for the staff.Unused manacles hang on a pillar last month in the booking area of the Pierce County Jail. The loss of Tacoma inmates means less to do for the staff.

TACOMA SAYS FAREWELL

The grit hit Oct. 4, when Tacoma asked Pierce County for the bottom line on jail rates, in advance of an Oct. 15 meeting.

Internally, the debate between the county executive’s office and the sheriff was still simmering. An Oct. 9 email from Masko to the executive’s office restated the long-running concern: losing Tacoma meant big losses for the county.

“Reducing the misdemeanor population doesn’t seem to be the answer to us,” Masko wrote. “The issue is like a can’t-win situation. We have to reduce but it will hurt our contracting and reduce revenue.”

According to Cribbin, Tacoma leaders still were hoping for an offer to freeze rates. No such luck; the county’s offer increased 2013 rates across the board by 5 percent and added an additional fee for inmates with mental health problems.

County leaders believed they were making a solid offer that included concessions. They described it as a “variable” rate — one for regular customers, another slightly lower one for exclusive customers.

The additional charge for mentally ill inmates was another “variable” element, in the county’s view — if the city brought inmates without mental health issues, the city wouldn’t have to pay the additional fee.

The city saw the offer differently — both sets of rates were higher in 2013 than 2012. “Variable” was just another word for “more.”

Regular or exclusive, every county fee was rising, and the mental health fee represented a new charge.

“The county was really insisting on these massive increases,” Cribbin said.

Masko, the jail services chief, and Williams, the sheriff’s contract manager, laid out the terms at the mid-October meeting.

Masko’s notes of the meeting, relayed to the county executive’s office, stated that Tacoma didn’t mind the extra mental health rate; police leaders understood that. They were more concerned about other costs and how they were measured. They wanted clearer statistics and clearer measurements of costs for things such as court escort, and options for electronic home-monitoring of inmates as a cheap alternative to jail.

For the first time, Tacoma also openly declared it was looking elsewhere for jail services. A final answer was expected by mid-November.

“TPD is considering us and other options,” Masko wrote.

Tacoma police leaders met privately Oct. 23. The county still didn’t know it, but the city was looking even harder at Fife.

The price in Fife was right — well below the county’s offer. Fife also guaranteed a 30-minute turnaround on booking, a major improvement over the process at the county jail, where it could take two hours or more. Those were pluses — but escort prices were still the sticking point.

“If Fife is not able to provide escorts (to court, medical facilities), this would be a deal-breaker. Fife should be contacting us soon regarding this.”

— Internal meeting minutes, Oct. 23, 2012

The answer came Nov. 6. Fife was willing to cover escort.

Tacoma police had everything they wanted: new jail services at dramatically lower rates, and a sweet package to share with the City Council.

Councilman Marty Campbell remembers a Public Safety Committee meeting around that time, when police officials presented the new arrangement with Fife. The deal was a pleasant surprise — an actual savings for the same service, all too rare in budget debates.

“We were looking at it, going, ‘What’s the catch?’” Campbell remembered.

There was no catch. The deal was real.

On Nov. 14, Police Chief Don Ramsdell called Masko and gave him the news: Tacoma was breaking up with Pierce County.

Masko promptly emailed the sheriff, and the note soon bounced to the executive’s office.

“(Ramsdell) wanted to give us a heads-up that TPD will not be retaining the ‘exclusive’ customer contract relationship with us,” Masko wrote. “Don said they have to get the cost of incarceration down to manage their budget.”

It was all over. Tacoma was taking its inmates out of the jail. The county had traded a one-year rate freeze for a $5 million deficit.

RUNNING IN THE RED

A cascade of cuts followed in 2013. The jail closed three pods (252 beds) and cut 30 positions, which included layoffs of 16 deputies and cuts of 14 vacant positions. That saved $3 million. County Council members stepped up with another $2 million from the general fund — an infusion that still rankles leaders frustrated by continuing cost overruns.

Click to enlarge:

All year, the jail debate has resembled a policy tug of war. McCarthy and County Council members are tired of backfilling the jail with money that could be used elsewhere and want a better balance sheet. They wonder why reducing jail capacity doesn’t equate to a corresponding drop in spending, and they continue to squeeze individual cost categories for possible savings.

“It’s complex,” McCarthy said in a recent interview. “It’s not easy stuff. It’s not an easy system. It’s not just the sheriff. It’s a big operation. Our jail has not been sustainable for years. We haven’t right-sized this jail.”

Pastor replies that some costs are out of his hands, not faced by municipal jails. Those costs are dictated by a 1990s-era federal lawsuit — the same suit that forced construction of the new jail a decade ago to combat overcrowding.

“We have fixed costs with regard to the lawsuit,” the sheriff said. “For example, I have to have a doctor. I don’t get any choice. I’ve got to pay for the doctor if I have this many inmates or this many. My costs don’t go down for each expansion and contraction.”

He also notes that low-level inmates from contract cities provide a potential counter to the increasing costs. For felons, the county gets nothing — but city misdemeanants provide extra revenue, if the county is willing to accept them.

Could the county have prevented some of its trouble by giving Tacoma a better deal last year? McCarthy said the county couldn’t and can’t compete with Fife. It would have required operating at a $3.2 million loss, forcing the county to rob other programs to fund the jail.

“There is no way that we could offer the same price that Fife was offering,” she said.

Pastor doesn’t argue for matching Fife’s rate, but he wonders about middle ground — higher than Fife, but perhaps lower than the county’s current rates. In that hypothetical scenario, contract inmates could represent a path to offset costs.

“That’s revenue you wouldn’t get otherwise,” he said. “It is true that each extra increment will cost you something — but you find the point where the lines cross, where the cost of keeping that extra person goes down.”

A recently completed jail rate study commissioned by the County Council tends to echo Pastor’s view. It suggests that accepting contract inmates could help the county reduce its jail deficit, as long as the revenue outpaces the expense.

Thus the standoff: McCarthy and county leaders want to reduce costs until they balance. Pastor wants to preserve the possibility of regaining inmates from neighboring cities, which means hanging on to extra space and staff, which means a continuing deficit.

A year ago, low-level inmates represented 32 percent of the average jail population. A year later, after Tacoma’s departure, the figure has dropped to 19 percent — and only 2 percent of those low-level inmates come from cities.

In other words, the county is approaching a stage where it will house only felons and its own low-level arrestees while paying all costs, with no revenue at all from cities. McCarthy and Pastor agree on one thing: they don’t want that.

The executive can’t say what ratio she’d prefer. That decision has to come later, she said — after leaders fully digest the jail rate study, and after a planned performance audit of jail operations, scheduled for early next year.

“I don’t know what the magic number is,” McCarthy said. “We need to right-size our jail, whatever that may be. It is in our wheelhouse to do this body of work — but we just need to be doing it well.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com
@seanrobinsonTNT

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