The cost of locking up sexually violent felons on an otherwise-vacant McNeil Island is growing, and that could make the Special Commitment Center a target for budget cutters.
State lawmakers of both parties say the center might need to move to the mainland.
“We’ve got to look at all those structural changes. If it costs a fortune to run this thing on the island, why are we doing that?” House budget chairman Ross Hunter said. “Let’s run the thing where it’s less expensive.”
The $42 million-a-year mental health treatment facility for sex offenders had shared McNeil Island with a prison, but budget cuts shuttered the prison in April. The Legislature provided 35 extra workers to pick up the slack, but officials say they need 23 more next year – mostly security officers to patrol the island and boat operators to bring people and equipment on and off.
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The higher the price tag for keeping the island running, Hunter said, the more likely the savings outweigh moving costs that could be substantial.
Beyond the costs, there’s a more obvious problem: Nobody is clamoring to have nearly 300 sex offenders in their backyard.
Residents of the Special Commitment Center are deemed so dangerous the courts have confined them even though their prison sentences are over. As of last week, the center housed 285 residents.
Opposition has built in the Centralia area to housing them at the shuttered Maple Lane School, a juvenile detention facility in Grand Mound and Hunter’s preferred choice for a new spot.
Hunter acknowledges that his second choice, Western State Hospital, might not be well-received either. “I think that causes a holy war in Pierce County,” the Medina Democrat said.
Sen. Mike Carrell, whose district includes both McNeil Island and Western State, said he would fight a move to the psychiatric hospital in Lakewood.
A sexual psychopath unit operated for years at Western State, and crimes committed by an escapee and by a graduate of the program made headlines in the 1970s.
The Legislature repealed that program before creating new civil commitment powers in 1990, along with a secure, prison-like commitment center instead of a hospital setting. The center ended up at McNeil Island after a stint in Monroe.
“I didn’t have any problem when it was put out on the island, but I will resist as vigorously as I can having it go back to Western State Hospital,” said Carrell, a Lakewood Republican. “It’s a mental hospital. It’s not for felons who have got a history of sexual predation.”
But with the kind of austerity measures being contemplated to bridge a $1.4 billion budget shortfall, Hunter said he’s beyond the point of making political calculations about which cut will be popular. Every cut is hard now.
$23,000 PER RESIDENT PER YEAR EXTRA
The remote island location adds $6.6 million a year to the center’s costs, according to a consultant’s study released this month – or nearly $23,000 per resident.
Because of that potential savings, the Legislature could use a financing maneuver it used for the McNeil prison and Maple Lane closures. It could borrow some of the money it needs to fill the budget gap, then pay back the debt using the future savings from leaving the island.
Under one scenario, according to legislative staff calculations, the financing scheme would allow lawmakers to capture $44 million in this budget period.
Lawmakers might have to subtract from that the money needed to replicate the center elsewhere. The Department of Social and Health Services says that kind of renovation might cost $48 million at Maple Lane, so the Legislature would have to skip some of those upgrades to achieve any savings.
Those could include the costs of adding housing space and segregating the residents by their level of security risk.
But security would have to be increased, Special Commitment Center CEO Kelly Cunningham said.
An inner perimeter fence would be a top priority. A single fence with a single strand of razor wire stands at Maple Lane, while the commitment center has two fences with five rows of wire between them.
Technology would need upgrading – cameras, key-card readers, the alarm system. On the island, putting 30 pounds of pressure on the fence – just a bit more than your average raccoon – sends an alarm to a central control office that is manned around the clock.
NO REPLACEMENT FOR INMATES
Other costs would fall away. It’s expensive to run an island, with its ferries and tugboats, separate power and water systems, and expanse of 4,400 acres to be patrolled.
It’s especially expensive without the benefit of cheap inmate labor.
The Department of Corrections had inmates. It could pay them 42 cents an hour to be firefighters, deckhands on ferries and barges, assistants in the wastewater treatment plant and steam power plant, and to take care of roads, buildings and grounds.
Residents of the commitment center have a different legal status.
Early on as it prepared to take on new responsibilities, the center figured it would be able to use its own residents for some tasks. They could run boats and put out fires.
The vessel plans were shot down by the Coast Guard.
“A convicted felon can run a boat – attempted murder, things like that,” Cunningham said, “but apparently if you’re a sexually violent predator they won’t let you run the boat.”
The idea of resident firefighters was quashed, too, after officials realized the Corrections Department had a deal with the Steilacoom and Anderson Island fire departments to pool resources. The center wanted to keep that partnership going, Cunningham said.
“We weren’t real sure they would be too happy about us coming over with a bunch of sexually violent predators,” Cunningham said. As it turns out: “We were right.”
So the new caretaker of the island must lean on its employees to run the island. The cost of paying staff is running $2.3 million above the $6 million expected for this two-year budget.
Nine extra employees are needed to run ferries and tugboats, the agency says.
Eight more guards are needed to patrol the perimeter by land and by speedboat and maintain security around the clock, it says.
DSHS has been able to make some cuts from what Corrections spent, Cunningham said. Ferries used to make 18 runs a day; they are down to 11. Barges now run four days a week instead of five.
The agency was awaiting this month’s report on what the center could do to hold down costs, but consultants saw little beyond what had already been done.
They did suggest about $500,000 a year could be saved by contracting out more of the food service budget, which has nothing to do with the island location. But they said most other major cost-saving options, such as using the Pierce County ferry and crews, would be risky or less effective.
‘WE DON’T WANT’ THE SCC
The alternative to the new costs is finding a new site. DSHS officials say they wouldn’t do it without collecting public input.
Last winter, state Sen. Jim Hargrove, a Democrat from Hoquiam who chairs a committee with authority over human services programs, talked to Sen. Dan Swecker, a Republican from Rochester, about what to do with Maple Lane.
Swecker wants a proposed prison receiving center at the facility. At that time, he was open to the idea of accepting the commitment center.
That’s changed now.
“I got a lot of negative feedback from my community, so I probably wouldn’t be very excited about it,” Swecker said.
He and Hargrove haven’t talked about it since, Swecker said.
Rep. Gary Alexander, a Thurston County Republican who represents the area, is blunt about it: “We don’t want a special commitment center in Lewis County.”
But Carrell said he, Hargrove and other state senators have looked at the center as they toss around early ideas for cuts in bipartisan groups, he said.
Carrell said it might have to leave the island now that the prison has been closed, a move he opposed.
“It’s making less sense now than it once did to have it out there,” he said.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Jordan_Schrader