Jailing inmates at a reasonable expense isn’t an unreasonable expectation of Pierce County government. All too often, though, it seems like an impossible one.
The latest report on the Pierce County Jail’s overtime expenses is shocking. The numbers, as documented by The News Tribune’s Steve Maynard and Kate Martin, are astounding:
• Roughly $2.5 million was budgeted for overtime this year; roughly $3.6 million actual overtime costs are expected. (Actual overtime has exceeded budget five of the last six years.)
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• Seven deputies averaged more than $100,000 in overtime from 2009 through 2013.
• A single workaholic deputy earned $290,000 in overtime in those five years, nearly doubling his regular pay salary and more than doubling his expected pension.
What shocks is the persistence of the problem. It never gets solved. A probing performance audit this year concluded that the jail has long depended on overtime to cover normal, scheduled shifts. As far as the public is concerned, much of this is money down a rat hole. Year after year, the massive overtime expenses have eaten deeply into other public services.
One problem: Accountability is fragmented. Sheriff Paul Pastor oversees the jail’s operation. County Executive Pat McCarthy’s office negotiates its union contracts and recommends budgets. The County Council approves the budget.
The Pierce County Corrections Guild has immense influence over the jail’s operations, and its contracts have locked in many of its preferences. Front-line officers aren’t the only ones shielded by labor agreements: Administrators — captains and lieutenants — are themselves unionized. The setup isn’t designed for healthy pushback against employees’ demands.
It shows. The guild, for example, has won the prerogative of having up to 10 percent of its members on vacation at any given time. Like most people, its well-paid deputies like to take their weeks in summer. Unlike most people, they have an employer willing to take a big financial hit to maximize fair-weather vacations. As a result, the jail racks up high expenses to cover their absences. Much of the excessive spending would go away if administrators spread the vacation weeks more evenly across the year.
The performance audit team made an important observation: Guarding prisoners in a jail is a high-stress job. Human beings have limits; letting them routinely work excess hours in stressful circumstances is not only expensive, it’s asking for trouble.
County officials must bring that
10 percent ceiling down in the next contract.
Another major expense driver has been the baroque classification of inmates into nine categories that range from “high maximum” to “very low minimum.” Each group is handled a bit differently, which requires extra staffing. The performance audit recommended three or four categories.
Pastor sounds agreeable. For the most part, he has endorsed the audit’s recommendations. The County Council has agreed to hire more jail staff — another step toward curbing overtime, though it may not be enough.
Large jails are fiendishly complex operations. We can’t second-guess what’s gone wrong, but the performance audit — which was done by genuine jail experts — looks highly credible. It has given the county an authoritative guide to wringing inefficiencies out of the system.
From our perspective, the public interest has not always come first at the Pierce County Jail. Employee benefits — from pay scales to overtime privileges to vacation policies — point toward a tradition of captive management and compliant county leaders. This has translated into millions of dollars in waste that Pierce County cannot afford.