Pierce County seeks new jail deputies as Tacoma inmates return

Corrections deputy Chris Erwin manages the jail trustees scheduling board at the Pierce County Jail in November 2014. The Pierce County jail is trying to hire 22 more deputies this year after laying off 16 deputies in 2013.
Corrections deputy Chris Erwin manages the jail trustees scheduling board at the Pierce County Jail in November 2014. The Pierce County jail is trying to hire 22 more deputies this year after laying off 16 deputies in 2013. Staff photographer

Pierce County is boosting its recruitment of corrections deputies because of a need to reduce steep jail overtime costs and an increase in inmates from a new contract with Tacoma.

As of last week, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department had filled 14 of 22 new corrections positions — eight that were approved in the 2015 budget and 14 tied to the Tacoma jail services contract approved in June. About 300 deputies currently work at the jail.

Keeping the downtown Tacoma jail staffed continues to be a challenge, however, because corrections workers have left almost as quickly as they have been hired.

Ten staff members have departed this year due to retirement, probation failure, resignations and other factors, according to a recent sheriff’s department presentation to the County Council.

Sheriff Paul Pastor told The News Tribune that he’s not worried. Some fluctuation always happens, he said.

Still, cutting down on overtime is a struggle, he said, a year after an audit found that more deputies and less overtime could save the jail nearly $35,000 a year. The jail racked up more than $6 million in unbudgeted overtime costs in 2013 and 2014.

“Unfortunately, we can’t snap our fingers and hire people,” Pastor said.

The motivation for increased hiring is twofold: responding to the audit report as well as an influx of low-level inmates from a jail contract with Tacoma.

The Pierce County Jail houses Tacoma misdemeanor suspects awaiting trial, as well as inmates who require more frequent access to the court system and defense attorneys.

Currently, the jail houses about 50 Tacoma inmates, a number that eventually will increase to 75.

“We are building up to the full amount,” Pastor said.

Tacoma has agreed to pay Pierce County $75.80 per inmate per day, a figure that gradually will increase over the next several years, according to the contract.

The fee is down from the $85 per day that the city paid in 2012. That year, Tacoma started contracting for cheaper jail services with the city of Fife.

The end of Tacoma’s previous partnership with the county jail was partly to blame for a $5 million corrections deficit in 2013 that resulted in the layoffs of 16 deputies.

“I urged that we not lay off that many,” Pastor said. “After that, we sort of dug a hole in terms of staffing.”

The partnership was renewed earlier this year after Fife terminated its contract due to a lack of certainty and consistency from Tacoma regarding inmate numbers.

Tacoma agreed to pay Pierce County nearly $600,000 through the end of 2015, in monthly payments, to help cover deputies’ overtime costs while the county recruited more staff.

In addition to the 22 positions already funded, Pastor plans to request six more positions in the 2016 budget. That will boost staffing to recommended levels outlined in last year’s audit report, he said.

Pastor said he estimates that four or five new deputies will be hired monthly through the end of the year. Another 40 deputies are eligible for retirement, but he said it’s unlikely all of them will retire.

“There is no time where you have a steady state,” he said of the attrition rate. “This is not new or unique.”

Pastor said the county is actively seeking new hires. That includes mental health professionals and clerks, among other jobs, though corrections deputies are the priority.

To advertise for open positions, a patrol vehicle covered in recruitment graphics has been driving around the area. In addition, one deputy is focusing full time on recruitment duties.

Other deputies have been given recruitment cards to hand out to individuals who show promise, and the sheriff’s department has had a presence at regional job fairs and other events.

“They’ve really taken this seriously,” Pastor said of the recruiters.

An added challenge in the hiring process is competing with other jails that are filling the same jobs.

“Everybody who has a jail is competing in a difficult market for corrections people,” he said.

Pierce County corrections salaries are mid-range compared with other local agencies, he added.

Pastor noted that special incentives are being explored, but the county would need to find funding for them. For example, the sheriff said he’s proposed paying current employees a bonus when they attract new hires who successfully complete their probationary periods.

But “wallet motivation” shouldn’t be the sole focus, he said.

“I want the right kind of person,” he said.

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, who has previously wrangled with Pastor over overtime costs, said she supports the sheriff’s department’s “strategic changes” to the recruiting process. She said she’s “very hopeful” that the jail vacancies will be filled by the end of the year.

Pastor stressed that maintaining a positive culture at the jail is a top priority.

“We have kept standards up, and intend to keep standards high,” he said.