Fife has served Tacoma a 90-day notice saying it will stop housing and transporting inmates booked for misdemeanor crimes committed in Tacoma.
Fife City Manager Subir Mukerjee said Tuesday that the notice was prompted by Tacoma’s lack of a long-term plan for jail services at the Fife City Jail.
The decision raises questions about where Tacoma will send its inmates because Pierce County Jail announced last month that it’s over capacity.
In the letter dated Feb. 26, Mukerjee wrote that Tacoma responded to Fife’s request for a long-term commitment by submitting a proposal that was insufficient.
“Tacoma’s counter proposal did not include a long-term contract, but instead called for Pierce County to be the primary booking agency for Tacoma prisoners, with Fife being a secondary booking agency if Pierce County reached maximum capacity,” it states.
Mukerjee wrote that the plan “could not work for us due to the uncertainty of not knowing the number of Tacoma inmates to expect on any given day.”
Mukerjee proposed that Tacoma book all its inmates with the county and contract with Fife to hold post-sentencing inmates. He said Tuesday that Tacoma has yet to agree to those terms.
“We wouldn’t know from day to day how many inmates to plan for,” Mukerjee told The News Tribune. “Until there’s some certainty, we just can’t keep doing business like we’ve been doing before.”
Mark Lauzier, Tacoma’s assistant city manager, said the city received Fife’s letter last week. As a result, officials are “working out the details” of an agreement with Pierce County.
“We asked Fife to provide a counteroffer,” Lauzier said Tuesday.
Lauzier didn’t seem worried about the deadline. He said there is “plenty of time” to come to an agreement.
Fife’s notice states that on May 30 Fife will terminate its jail services contract, previously set to expire in 2022. This comes after Pierce County recently notified cities and towns countywide that it doesn’t have the staff to house misdemeanor offenders.
Thirteen jurisdictions received a formal notice last month to stop sending their misdemeanants to the county jail, where corrections staffing has dwindled, and the felony population has spiked.
The county is required by state law to book all felons and pay the cost of their incarceration. That’s one element of the county jail’s budget problems, dating back to 2013.
That year, 16 deputies were laid off to help fill a $5 million jail deficit, caused in part by Tacoma moving its misdemeanor bookings to Fife for a cheaper rate.
The county has been working to get Tacoma’s business back.
Sheriff Paul Pastor said in an interview this month that negotiations with Tacoma were continuing. He stressed that the end goal is to partner with all local agencies to create a consolidated regional system, once staffing is increased and funding is stabilized.
Pastor couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon. Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said the capacity issues remain the same.
“We can’t accept any new inmates until we staff up,” Troyer said.
If Fife follows through with the contract termination, Lauzier said he’s confident Tacoma will have somewhere to house its inmates.
“We will have options in place. They are being worked right now,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that people are starting to panic about it.”
Fife reorganized its corrections department after it agreed to house Tacoma’s misdemeanants last year.
City officials say the small jail handles nearly six times the number of inmates it did before the Tacoma contract. The city also subcontracts prisoners out to other regional jails, such as South Correctional Entity (SCORE) in Des Moines.
Tacoma inmates make up about 85 percent of Fife’s total inmate population.
The transition has been rocky at times. While adjusting to the high volume of inmates, two corrections officers resigned before the city could fire them for sexual misconduct with inmates and female colleagues.
Still, it appeared that Fife had plans for the long haul.
The city has considered capital improvements to its jail and boosting hiring for corrections staff — so long as it could secure a long-term commitment from Tacoma.
Mukerjee said Tuesday that Fife may still negotiate with Tacoma between now and when the contract is set to expire.
“We’re still open to discussions,” he said.