Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Feud over jail budget years in the making

Post by Brian O'Neill on Sep. 16, 2013 at 5:04 pm with No Comments »
September 17, 2013 5:15 pm

These days it is next to impossible to follow the news without getting a daily injection of political invective. There is a new reality in the halls of federal and state power –  acrimony has replaced compromise, consensus across the aisle is a distant memory and fingerpointing is the new national pastime.

Judging by recent events, one could assume that Pierce County officials have fallen into this same trap.

Pierce County Jail/ News Tribune Photo
Pierce County Jail/ News Tribune Photo

I refer to the Pierce County Council’s upcoming vote on a plan to furlough sixteen jail deputies. The debate comes after a wave of budgetary woes – the Great Recession, a falling crime rate and stiff competition from Fife’s jail – resulting in a five million dollar shortfall.

Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor spoke against the furloughs (TNT 9/9), claiming the problem could be fixed by enticing agencies back to the county jail with cheaper rates.

The union representing the affected deputies warned that the furloughs not only sent the wrong message to criminals, but would make their jobs all the more dangerous (TNT 9/11). On the latter two points, I wholeheartedly agree.

In response, Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and Council Chair Joyce MacDonald took the unusual step of submitting a letter to the editor (TNT 9/15) to explain their efforts to head off the county jail’s budget crisis. It was no mea culpa, to be sure.

In blunt language, McCarthy and MacDonald detailed their year long efforts working with Sheriff Pastor to address the county jail’s plunging income stream. Two points emerge from their letter: 1) The Sheriff’s Office made little attempt to address the fiscal issues with county budget experts and had no interim success enticing agencies to sign contracts for jail space; 2) The falling crime rate and new jail space at other facilities necessitate the elimination of unneeded positions.

It was a fine example of finger-pointing. But was it accurate?

In comments before a county committee on Monday, Sheriff Pastor said, “I think we can still talk about doing this contract approach and I would like to continue speaking to you about that.” His statement seems to support the McCarthy and MacDonald’s thinly veiled reference to the sheriff’s unwillingness to act on a looming crisis months ago.

But where does the responsibility – not to mention the willingness – to negotiate jail rates truly lie? Is it the sheriff’s decision or does a county budget official make that call? If it is the latter party, then the letter writers are off the mark.

Their second point is even more elusive. Between the falling crime rate and arrestees detouring to Fife, furloughs do seem logical. However, when it comes to the ratio of jail staff to inmates, there is no universal number. Unlike the Fife jail, the individuals that roll through the Pierce County sally port are there following arrests for felonies and crimes of violence; some are dangerously unstable, either from drug addictions or mental health issues.

Working under these conditions comes with inherent risks, and furloughs inevitably mean less help. As Deputy John King said before the council on Tuesday, “Somebody is going to get killed, and it’s going to be on your backs.” McCarthy and MacDonald’s letter suggests they do not appreciate this point of view.

If there is anything worth taking out of this devolving argument, it is the reminder that police agencies – not to mention county governments – are not financial think tanks. After all, the problem originated in 1996 when county officials (at the behest of the courts) added 500 beds to the jail. The new annex often sat vacant for lack of staffing funds long before the current situation.

Compare that to the South Correctional Facility (SCORE) in Des Moines, a joint endeavor by several South King County agencies and private enterprise. While there are issues with a non-governmental entity operating a lockup facility, the agencies which utilize SCORE were able to negotiate acceptable booking and housing rates, thus averting the problems of ownership now facing Pierce County.

To be fair, Ms. McCarthy and Ms. MacDonald have a point. Money is tight. Employment is not an entitlement.

But for now, the only item not in short supply appears to be blame. Nothing could be more counterproductive. Our elected officials need to set aside the game of finger-pointing and get back to the business of running the county.

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