Politics & Government

Pierce County Council adds two patrol deputies, adopts 2015 budget

The Pierce County Council made last-minute changes to the 2015 budget on Monday that will bring two law enforcement deputies to the streets while also imposing a new level of oversight to try to rein in spending at the county jail.

But the council rejected looking into making a major change in the jail’s power structure.

The council balked at a recommendation by council Chairman Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, to study moving the corrections bureau from the Sheriff’s Department and putting it under the authority of County Executive Pat McCarthy.

Roach said that change was worth studying in light of overtime budget overruns at the jail. Overtime for October surpassed $500,000.

If that rate of spending continues, Roach said, “we’re in a completely unsustainable state.”

Several jail employees said they want the jail to remain under the authority of Sheriff Paul Pastor. And some council members said it was too soon to consider the study. They favored more time to carry out recommended changes. Roach cast the only “yes” vote for his amendment.

The council unanimously adopted the 2015 budget around 9 p.m., following more than five hours of deliberations. The general fund budget totals about $282.1 million, which increases spending for core government services by about 3 percent. The total county budget, including capital spending, is about $928 million.

The budget includes eight new corrections deputies at the jail and overtime spending cuts of $742,000 — provisions in McCarthy’s budget that the council agreed to support last week.

Much of Monday evening was spent debating other ways to control costs at the jail.

The council agreed to establish a new committee overseeing how the Sheriff’s Department is carrying out changes recommended by a jail operations study that was done this year. That study recommended tracking overtime and reclassifying inmates based on their security risk.

The Sheriff’s Department must report monthly.

The amendment was approved 5-2, with council members Connie Ladenburg and Rick Talbert, both Tacoma Democrats, voting “no.” Jail employees also objected.

On another issue, the council approved setting up a task force and adopted a policy to shut down collective gardens and unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries beginning July 1 unless the Legislature licenses them.

Constituents have complained, and the County Council has been concerned about the proliferation of unlicensed medical marijuana operations in unincorporated Pierce County, some council members said.

Talbert opposed the change and said the policy was misguided in making marijuana the No. 1 problem in Pierce County.

Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, said she disagreed with Talbert’s assessment, but added it would be negligent to allow unlicensed marijuana businesses to continue in the county.

In addition to the policy, the council directed McCarthy to form a task force of county officials to develop a plan for how it would shut down medical marijuana collectives.

The actions are unrelated to the county’s de facto ban on recreational marijuana businesses.

In other actions, the council approved spending $180,000 to construct a children’s playground at Meridian Habitat Park on South Hill, at the recommendation of McDonald.

The council also moved $179,000 for computer upgrades in the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to maintain funding for two deputy prosecutor positions. The prosecutor’s office has money left in this year’s budget to make the computer improvements.

The council also heard a last-minute appeal to save the job of Dr. Miguel Balderrama, the physician-medical director at the jail.

As a cost-cutting move, McCarthy had removed Balderrama’s position in her budget and moved his responsibilities to the Sheriff’s Department’s contract for jail medical services with Conmed Inc.

Councilman Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor, voiced concern about removing Balderrama’s position. The Sheriff’s Department also argued for keeping Balderrama, especially since the medical services contract has not been renegotiated.

Changing to a private contractor is estimated to save the county $72,000 in 2015. Balderrama is the county’s third-highest paid employee, with an annual salary of $193,836.

In the end, the council stuck with McCarthy’s plan, which means Balderrama’s position will be eliminated.