Inside Opinion

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Tag: City of Tacoma


Pierce County Jail crisis demands legislative fix

Tacoma’s transfer of misdemeanants to Fife has put the Pierce County Jail in a budget crisis. (Staff file photo)

When cities and counties have a serious conflict they can’t settle among themselves, it’s really a state problem. The Legislature should start paying attention to the predicament of the Pierce County Jail.

That predicament is a result of municipalities acting in their own interests and the interests of their citizens — good local impulses that add up to a bad regional result.

It started in 2009 when the City of Lakewood began moving its low-level offenders and arrestees from the Pierce County Jail to cities that ran cheaper lockups, including Fife’s 36-bed operation.

Pierce County rolled with that punch. But then, in December, the City of Tacoma — the county’s biggest jail “customer” — decided to do likewise, diverting its own misdemeanants to Fife’s jurisdiction. This left the county reeling with the loss of millions of dollars; Sheriff Paul Pastor is now ordering the closure of two 84-bed dorms at the jail and elimination of as many as 30 jobs there.

Tacoma and Lakewood officials are grabbing savings dangling in front of their noses. Fife officials are doing something more imaginative: turning their small city into a big-time broker of jail capacity.

They’ve recently bargained for available beds in Yakima, Wapato, Sunnyside and the South Correctional Entity in Des Moines; they’re brokering those beds to Lakewood and Tacoma.

This wouldn’t hurt the county so much if Lakewood and Tacoma were sending all their people to Fife. What they are actually doing is saddling the Pierce County Jail with their felons, accused felons and severely mentally ill, who cost much more to control, guard and treat.

The county had been able to subsidize those costs with city reimbursements for petty offenders. Now the shift of those cheaper arrestees to the Fife archipelago is allowing Tacoma and Lakewood to pocket the difference — and leaving the Pierce County Jail bleeding from the pockets.

Aside from the financial crisis for the county, there’s a potential threat to public safety. Had those two 84-bed pods been unavailable last week, for example, the Pierce County Jail wouldn’t have had the capacity to house the inmates who were actually in it.

When the pods do close, some criminals who belong behind bars might instead wind up in home-monitoring or some other more relaxed arrangement. Relaxed arrangements are not great deterrents to crime.
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Stealing the good bad guys from the Pierce County Jail

As our news staff reported Wednesday, the Pierce County Jail – which is to say, the Pierce County government – is taking a big hit from Tacoma’s decision last December to pull its petty crooks out of the downtown slammer.

Tacoma was the jail’s biggest customer. We’re talking the loss of millions of dollars a year (the city paid $6 million in 2012). The financial crisis is forcing Sheriff Paul Pastor to lay off jail staff, shut down 160 beds and do something creative with the resulting bed shortage. He promised there’d be no Fall-of-Baghdad-style mass release of mad sociopaths.

Pastor, county Executive Pat McCarthy and Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald were in this morning to lay out the dismal facts.

“We don’t fault Tacoma,” McCarthy said, for sending its misdemeanants to Fife’s relatively cheap penal system and leaving its high-maintenance felons – whose incarceration the city doesn’t pay for – in the Pierce County Jail.

But McCarthy really wasn’t delighted with Tacoma. She proceeded to elaborate on the ill consequences of the city’s “shopping around” for jails and the way it let Fife “cherry-pick” the nicer, healthier, less dangerous small-timers.

This is something like the adverse selection that health insurers worry about – getting stuck with the sick, older people when the younger, healthy people decide they don’t want to subsidize all those heart attacks and strokes with their premium dollars. The City of Tacoma is a rational actor. It’s in a budget crisis of its own, and it’s not passing up a chance to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in criminal justice expenses.

The City of Fife’s creative entrepreneurialism should be noted. Its jail has a scant 36 beds, but it’s negotiated for jail space in cities from Des Moines to Sunnyside in Eastern Washington. It then markets these beds to its own customers, now including Tacoma and Lakewood.

Another rational actor. Somebody should be working on Wall Street, not 23rd Street East.
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Public unions have a choice: Save pay – or jobs

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

There’s no telling what kind of sacrifices Tacoma’s firefighters union may be offering as it privately negotiates with city administrators to preserve positions and public safety. The big thing is that they’re negotiating in the first place.

The Great Recession has not been kind to public unions. In the rising economic tide that preceded it, many of them had won very generous compensation from local and state officials they’d helped put in office.

Unions in the private sector should have it so good. Private-sector unions can’t vote for the people they face at the bargaining table, and the companies they work for can go bust if they can’t turn a profit. (See Hostess Brands Inc.)

Governments don’t face the discipline of the market, and they rarely go belly up: People can do without Twinkies, but they can’t do without police protection, sewers, water or streets.

The recession and its aftermath have slammed public unions from two directions: Governments have been hard-pressed to pay for those nice contracts without cannibalizing the services they provide their citizens. And taxpayers – many of whom have seen their incomes drop – have been annoyed to discover how much they are paying public employees in very hard times.

With revenue growth strangled, budget-writing has become a zero-sum game: Union compensation comes at the expense of city services, and vice versa. When the tradeoffs are made, no one walks away smiling.

In fact, the City of Tacoma would have been happy to settle for zero sum tradeoffs. After inheriting a fiscal disaster from his predecessor – and previous city councils – City Manager T.C. Broadnax had to close a $63 million shortfall when he developed Tacoma’s newly adopted biennial spending plan.
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Coming soon: The South Tacoma marijuana district

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

Take a look at the map to the right.

The dark spots mark properties where “medical marijuana” could be sold under a plan the Tacoma City Council appears ready to approve. There are numerous potential sales sites, especially in South Tacoma.

The dark spots with diagonal stripes mark areas where the marijuana can be grown in collective gardens and sold to anyone with an easy-to-obtain “green card.”

Note the broad grow-and-sell zone running down South Tacoma Way. Few other Washington cities feel the need to accommodate marijuana sales – which are illegal under state and federal law – so the plan promises to turn South Tacoma and the South End into magnets for many of the region’s marijuana seekers. Read more »


What the Tacoma Dome needs: Lather, rinse, repeat

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

It’s embarrassing. You roll into the state’s second city on Interstate 5 and there stands its most visible landmark, the Tacoma Dome. And it’s filthy.

The grime’s been accumulating on the Dome’s roof since 2005, when it was last given a bath. It looks like pond scum without the pond. If the coating of exhaust pollutants weren’t so noxious, you could almost plant wheat in.

Tacoma has a lot of nice landmarks, including Union Station, the Museum of Glass and Old City Hall. (OK, let’s not look too closely at that last one.) But the Dome ­– right there on the West Coast’s busiest thoroughfare – is what hundreds of thousands of Americans and Canadians see as they approach Tacoma.

It’s the city’s welcome sign, visual signature, architectural calling card, self-advertisement. It’s Grit City’s blue-collared version of McCaw Hall.

Moms and dads journey there from all over the state to watch their kids’ basketball tourneys and Gridiron Classics. The Dome has been featured on “Saturday Night Live.” It hosts bull riders, horse shows, Holiday Food and Gift Festivals, Tacoma Home Shows, Disneys on Ice.
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Why the rush to hire Tacoma’s next city manager?

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Slow down, council members. Slow down.

The Tacoma City Council appears poised to hire a city manager Tuesday night – a long-term decision made in a few short weeks. The four finalists might be credible candidates for this immensely challenging job; the council’s apparent hurry to close the deal is not so credible.

This is as important a vote as most members of this council are ever likely to make. The city manager is the CEO of an immense organization with multi-billion-dollar budgets. He – all the finalists are men – could make the difference between a city on the move and a city just hanging on.

Has the council really thought long enough and hard enough about this decision? Would it hurt to do another week or two or three of detective work? Here are some questions that ought to be answered about anyone seeking to run this large and complex city:

• Is he a wide-screen thinker? Does he have a panoramic vision for Tacoma’s future?

• Has he been tested? Has he shown skill and creativity in dealing with a major crisis – like the fiscal crisis the City of Tacoma now faces?

• Has he run open governments? Does he hide the public’s business from the public? Is his first impulse to include or exclude citizens?

• How broad and deep is his executive experience?
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Public sector, meet private sector economic reality

Update: The raises recommended for Tacoma Fire Chief Ronald Stephens and Police Chief Don Ramsdell have been withdrawn in light of Tacoma’s budget shortfall, according to city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff.

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Onward and upward goes the compensation of some government employees, even during the deepest economic distress in generations.

The latest bit of government largess – 5 percent pay increases – has gone to Tacoma Fire Chief Ronald Stephens and Police Chief Don Ramsdell. Their salaries will now be, respectively, $181,534 and $180,551.

That may or may not be too much in a city the size of Tacoma. What’s interesting is the thinking behind the raise: These two had to be paid more because they were in danger of being overtaken by their subordinates.

Without the increase, the city’s deputy fire chiefs and assistant police chiefs – all unionized, despite their high-management status – stood to make more money than their bosses.

Government compensation is rife with that kind of logic: Someone else gets more, so our guys ought to get even more than them. What clobbers taxpayers are the constant rounds of leap-frogging between one jurisdiction’s pay schedule and the pay schedules of “comparable” jurisdictions.

Public officials have a quaint notion of “market” pay. In the private sector, “market” is roughly defined as what you have to pay good employees to make them want to stick around. Otherwise, they complain with their feet.

In government, market pay is generally defined as what someone in a similar position in another government makes – regardless of whether attrition is a threat.

The City of Tacoma recently passed out millions of dollars worth of raises to its employees on the basis of such market comparisons, even as a $26 million hole has opened in its current biennial budget. The raises reflect the city council’s expensive policy of paying workers at least 70 percent of the highest pay given to their counterparts in similar cities.
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Public unions can spare themselves the backlash

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Political drama doesn’t get much richer than what’s unfolded in Wisconsin the last few days.

Democrats fleeing the state. Republicans dispatching state troopers to catch their leader. Tens of thousands of demonstrators mobbing the Capitol.

Behind it is a dead serious issue: the extraordinary power public unions have exercised over government budgets.

In Wisconsin, the backlash against government unions has taken the form of a GOP drive to repeal collective bargaining for most public-sector employees. Similar drives are happening in other states where Republicans recently won governorships and gained control over legislatures.

This would not be happening if the unions had the support of the public. Many of those unions have forfeited that support by clinging to lush compensation packages at a time when workers in the private sector – including union members – are enduring the toughest economy in generations. A time when public services are being scaled back ruthlessly while generous labor contracts have continued on autopilot.

Too many examples are found in Pierce County. Although the cost of living has been flat, some union leaders have adamantly rejected pleas to reopen their contracts to reduce “cost-of-living” raises that considerably exceed the actual rate of inflation.
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