Politics & Government

Pierce County Jail expected to rack up $2.6 million deficit by year end, sheriff says

The Pierce County Jail is racking up another deficit in 2014 — a shortfall the Sheriff’s Department says will reach $2.6 million by the end of the year.

Last year, the deficit hit $5 million, resulting in the layoffs of 16 corrections deputies.

Despite the continuing budget crisis, there’s still no clear path forward for the jail to break even.

In one move expected to reduce costs for next year, the Sheriff’s Department plans to simplify how it classifies inmates for their level of custody by the start of 2015. Reclassifying could lead to some inmates needing less-restrictive, less-expensive custody than they get now.

Other cost-cutting options, such as work release, electronic home monitoring and early release, are being discussed by a panel of county leaders called the jail working group.

But Sheriff Paul Pastor told that panel recently that the jail needs to get back into the contracting business to increase its population of inmates convicted of misdemeanors, which would add revenue and make cost-cutting alternatives feasible.

“You can’t be an all-felony jail and do this,” Pastor said. “If you want to contract, let’s get on with it.”

Jail revenue has plunged since January 2013, when Tacoma stopped contracting with the county for people convicted of misdemeanors and shifted those bookings to Fife's jail for cheaper rates.

The county has since offered new, lower rates to get Tacoma’s business back. County budget officials have proposed a rate of $79.50 per day and say they can’t go below that while still breaking even.

Fife’s current rate is $75, and Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax said Fife is looking to offer more competitive rates.

“The county has expressed an interest in wanting us to come back and at least start to put our inmates at the misdemeanant level at the county,” Broadnax said last week. “We are looking at all numbers and costs and are still in that process.”

Much of this year’s county jail deficit is due to overtime pay to staff an overflow unit. Through July 25, the county had spent $1.93 million on jail overtime —76 percent of the overtime budget of $2.54 million for the whole year, according to the county’s budget and finance department.

County Executive Pat McCarthy said the overtime numbers are “over the moon.”

McCarthy talked with the County Council at its request a few weeks ago about the jail’s problems and potential solutions.

“We did this last year as well,” McCarthy said. “So I have a little bit of a level of frustration. I feel like we’re almost repeating our conversation that we had last year.”

She restated the core problem: The county is required to incarcerate felons, who make up about 87 percent of the jail’s population.

“The burden of all felons falls on the shoulders of county government,” McCarthy said. “There’s no sharing costs.”

The only “paying customers,” so to speak, are those convicted of misdemeanors, she said.

Council Chairman Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, voiced his frustration with the pace of change at the jail.

“My biggest frustration is just how slow things are happening,” Roach said.

Roach, who is chairman of the jail working group, wants the Sheriff’s Department to move forward with planning for jail alternatives —such as work release and electronic home monitoring — as it develops its reclassification system.

“I’m looking at taxpayer dollars,” Roach said in an interview. “If they’re over budget, I don’t want to write a check unless I know that they’ve done their due-diligence on every possible way to make things more efficient.”

Roach believes that after cost-saving steps are carried out, the county can reduce its $79.50 rate and still break even on contracting.

“We all want contracting, but we can’t just take taxpayer dollars and subsidize it,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Last year, the jail overspent its overtime budget by $602,983.

The size of the jail’s deficit this year is a matter of contention. The budget and finance department, which reports to McCarthy, projects a jail deficit of about $500,000 — a fraction of the Sheriff’s Department’s $2.6 million estimate.

“This lower number assumes that the Sheriff’s Department is able to manage the jail so that the high level of overtime does not continue for the remainder of the year,” said Gary Robinson, budget and finance director.

The Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, has a different view.

Corrections Chief Karen Daniels said the jail is understaffed and underbudgeted. That is evident by the need to run a pod for overflow inmates the past three months using corrections deputies on overtime, she said. The overflow pod was also open during some of the first quarter.

She cited an outside study that said the county jail’s population should be capped at 1,092 for a budgeted capacity of 1,213. A 10 to 15 percent vacancy rate is needed to move inmates around for the appropriate level of restriction and supervision, she said.

Daniels said last week that the jail’s population has averaged 1,106 for the year. The number of inmates Thursday was 1,210.

She said in an email that the overflow unit is necessary because “population is high and we lack appropriate beds for certain security and housing needs.”

For the week, the 84-bed pod averaged 77 inmates, Daniels said Thursday.

Pastor reiterated to the jail working group that contracting is the solution to the jail’s financial problem.

“People have asked me what my plan is,” Pastor said. “My plan is that we should get back in the contracting business and move on from there.

Pastor also said some of the county’s own inmates convicted of midemeanors aren’t being brought to the jail because of the lack of budgeted space.

There are “people who need to be in jail and aren’t,” Pastor said in an interview.

The overflow unit is filled primarily with people booked for driving under the influence and domestic violence, Pastor said. He said a major cause of the jail’s deficit is paying overtime for that unit.

Many of these overflow inmates are people convicted of midemeanors for whom the county is not reimbursed because they are brought in by the Washington State Patrol.

Contracting creates an economy of scale by helping pay fixed costs, such as medical staff, Pastor said. And it results in a more effective criminal justice system in part because local police don’t have to drive long distances to take inmates to other jails.

But contracting has proved elusive. The county has been waiting several months for Tacoma to make a decision.

With the mounting jail overtime, McCarthy told the council said she’s concerned the county may find itself having to make a decision like it did last fall to resolve the deficit.

About 80 percent of the county’s general fund already goes to criminal justice and public safety.

“We can’t get to a point where a 100 percent goes to back our operation, because we have other needs,” she said.

“I just don’t think it’s prudent for us to be balancing all the other departments on the jail,” McCarthy said. “I think we have to find a good solution.”