The long-running soap opera of the Pierce County Jail closed with another cliffhanger last week, and the outcome is anybody’s guess.
The dispute pits county Sheriff Paul Pastor and county Executive Pat McCarthy against the Pierce County Corrections Guild, which represents the 235 deputies who work at the jail. On Wednesday, Pastor announced an impasse in negotiations and raised the prospect of privatizing the jail or handing its administrative authority to McCarthy. Both notions could lead to the potential dissolution of the guild.
Pastor says union leaders are holding the jail hostage and hindering negotiations with the city of Tacoma that are intended to regain low-level inmates arrested by Tacoma police.
“Unless we are able to achieve a resolution to the impasse with the bargaining unit, I must propose that we consider and explore alternative approaches to providing corrections services in Pierce County,” Pastor wrote.
On Thursday, McCarthy and Pastor signed a letter to Tacoma leaders, breaking off long-running negotiations with the city and laying blame at the union’s feet.
“With the guild’s new position, Pierce County does not feel it can move forward with a five-year contract with the city of Tacoma for jail services at this time,” the letter states.
Union leaders say Pastor is grandstanding, trying to fault them for a situation they don’t control and ascribing them with power they don’t possess.
“The county’s decision to contract with Tacoma is in no way, legally or factually, contingent on any staffing agreement with the guild,” union leaders said in a statement released Saturday. “If an agreement with Tacoma falls through, the blame for that situation rests squarely on the county executive and sheriff.”
The stakes: about $6 million worth of revenue tied to low-level inmates arrested by Tacoma police. The county jail lost that money in 2012 when the city decided to start sending its inmates to the Fife City Jail at lower cost.
Since then, the county has been trying to regain some of those inmates to offset the increasing costs of running the jail.
In February, negotiations appeared to be moving forward, and the outlines of a deal were forming: Tacoma would send inmates still awaiting court hearings to Tacoma, while sending inmates already sentenced to Fife.
Low-level inmates represent revenue to the county that can’t be gained in any other way. By law, the county jail must accept all county arrestees charged with felonies. The county pays 100 percent of those costs.
Low-level inmates arrested in cities and charged with misdemeanors are a different matter. The county can charge cities for the costs of incarceration. In the last three years, that low-level population dwindled as cities began sending their inmates to other misdemeanor jails that charge lower rates. The impact has drained county jail revenues, leading to a three-year budget conundrum. It also means a higher percentage of violent inmates, requiring higher levels of security.
In March, Fife, impatient with the progress of negotiations, sent Tacoma an ultimatum, announcing that the small city would stop accepting all Tacoma inmates within 90 days if an agreement couldn’t be reached.
Pastor and McCarthy contend that they asked the guild to agree to a memorandum of understanding that would govern a proposed staffing model for the new inmates. The guild initially agreed to a model that would require 11 deputies to handle the 24-hour shifts.
They add that guild leaders changed their minds earlier this year and asked for 12 deputies instead of 11 to cover the shifts. County leaders were unhappy at first; the new staffing model added expense to the contract. But they say Tacoma was receptive, even with the slightly higher costs.
Two weeks ago, county leaders say, the guild added another demand: They wanted the sheriff and the executive to find ways to add additional staffing at the jail. That prompted Pastor’s announcement regarding new jail models, as well as the letter to Tacoma that announced postponement of negotiations over the Tacoma inmates.
Guild leaders say Pastor and McCarthy are spinning the story of the negotiations to punish the union. They concede that deputies agreed to one staffing model and then asked for changes, but they say they’re concerned about safety and worker burnout at the jail.
They say that county leaders complain about rising overtime costs, as reported by The News Tribune in November 2014, but they note that the overtime increases are a direct result of earlier decisions by the county to eliminate 16 deputy positions, forcing the remaining staff to pick up the shifts with overtime hours.
Guild leaders also say that the county has the power to sign a contract with Tacoma without any input from the union. The request for an agreement accepting staffing levels is intended as a cudgel to stop the union from complaining if problems arise in the future.
“We are obligated to evaluate and bargain over work conditions, including reasonable staffing needs, for the best protection and safety of officers and inmates,” the union’s letter stated. “That is what we were attempting to do in this situation when the sheriff decided to issue an ultimatum.”
Guild leaders said they plan to send a separate letter to Tacoma leaders Monday, explaining their role in the dispute.
“We would welcome an agreement between the county and the city of Tacoma to house inmates in Pierce County facilities,” they said. “If and when such an agreement does move forward, we would hope the conditions are such that they do not endanger the well-being of our officers or prisoners.”