Pierce County moves to fill jail, but rate it asks is higher than Fife’s

Staff writerApril 25, 2014 

Pierce County made its first move Friday to get back in the business of contracting out jail space by offering new, lower rates to Fife, the regional broker that holds jail contracts for Tacoma and other local cities.

But Fife Police Chief Brad Blackburn said the county’s proposed daily rate of $79.50 per inmate was too high. Fife charges just $75 per day.

“As you can tell, that’s not going to work,” Blackburn said after the meeting.

Fife would stand to lose money by sending misdemeanor inmates to the county jail.

But Blackburn said he needs to make sure services covered in the county’s and Fife’s rates match up.

“We’re committed to talk about it next week,” he said.

Pierce County Undersheriff Rob Masko wasn’t happy with the result of the first round of negotiations.

“We’re very disappointed to hear we’re probably not at a competitive price,” Masko said.

After at least five months of discussions and a paid rate study, the county’s Budget and Finance Department and the Sheriff’s Department agreed on a lower rate package than their current rate structure, which caused Tacoma to go shopping for a better deal back in 2012.

Budget and Finance Director Gary Robinson said the new jail rates are crafted for the county to break even after its costs.

Masko said the Sheriff’s Department needs to hear back from Blackburn what rate Fife would accept and then go back to county leaders to see if a deal is possible.

The county jail’s revenue and population have plunged since January 2013, when Tacoma shifted its misdemeanor bookings to Fife’s jail for cheaper rates. Sixteen county corrections deputies were laid off last fall as the jail faced a $5 million shortfall.

Masko said he understands Fife’s position.

“We also understand we can’t lose money in our attempt to get into the business,” Masko said. “We can’t get into a situation where we’re bleeding even more money than we are now.”

Robinson said the Sheriff’s Department projects the jail will operate at a deficit of $2.1 million this year.

The jail is budgeted for 1,200 inmates. The daily population averages around 1,100, the Sheriff’s Department said.

The county’s proposal is for Fife to pay for 70 inmates at the county jail in downtown Tacoma. That’s the break-even point in a 84-bed pod at the proposed rate.

Fife contracts to take in inmates from Tacoma and other jurisdictions, holding them in the 36-bed Fife jail and sending them to other jails.

Fife charges $75 a day, plus a $20 one-time booking fee but no court escort fee.

In addition to the $79.50 daily rate, the county proposed a $50 booking fee and a $120 court escort fee. A higher daily rate of $169 would be charged for inmates with mental health problems.

The county’s goal is to bring in more revenue, house inmates locally and have other jurisdictions benefit from the jail’s location next to courts in the County-City Building, officials say.

The county currently charges a daily rate of $92, a $225 booking fee and a $90 court escort fee. But the county covers all medical costs.

The new package is lower because the customer — not the county — would pay medical costs.

Sheriff Paul Pastor warned the County Council on Tuesday the new proposed rate might be too high.

“Let’s at least test the water,” he said.

Council members Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, and Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor, urged Pastor to start talks with the new rate.

“If it is (high), there’s nothing stopping us from reducing that rate in the future,” McDonald said.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647

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