After years of discussion and disagreement, the Thurston County commissioners and Sheriff John Snaza are on the brink of reaching an agreement to open the county’s new jail, which has been sitting empty since 2010.
They’re so close that Snaza said he hopes to be in the jail in 90 to 120 days.
“We’ll be in the jail by the end of the year, and I think it will be sooner than that,” Snaza said. “I hope it will be much sooner than that.”
And the commissioners agree. The two sides discussed the issue of opening the jail, formally known as the Accountability and Restitution Center (ARC), at a Tuesday morning meeting.
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“Overall, I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” said commission chair Cathy Wolfe. “I think we’re getting close.”
During the meeting, county officials discussed a letter of intent drafted by budget manager Robin Campbell last week. The Sheriff’s Office came to the meeting with changes and additions to the letter.
Snaza said in December that a letter of intent protecting the Sheriff’s Office’s budget is one of his conditions for opening the ARC.
Both Snaza and Wolfe said that a Dec. 28 article in The Olympian, which outlined the history of the ARC and the disagreement between the sheriff and the commissioners, was instrumental in bringing the issue to county officials’ attention.
“Before the article, we hadn’t talked about the ARC since May or June (of 2014),” Snaza said. “I think it made people realize that the problem isn’t going away.”
Snaza said he hopes the letter of intent will pave the way to open the mothballed jail without decimating the rest of the department’s budget. He said he’s not sure how much overtime corrections deputies will need to work in the ARC, whether the corrections department will still rely on contract housing and how to pay for mentally ill inmates.
“I know what’s happening right now (in the current jail), but I don’t know what’s going to happen when we move into the ARC,” Snaza said.
Campbell’s initial draft of the letter promises an additional $111,879 in the 2015 corrections budget, bringing the budget up to $17.98 million.
The draft also promises to earmark $283,000 in the general fund for corrections in 2015. This sum would include: $25,000 to physically move into the ARC, $25,000 for “unforeseeable needs” afterwards, and an additional $50,000 to cover medical, lab and dental costs.
The letter promises the same amount of earmarked funds in 2016, minus the $25,000 in move-in costs and $25,000 for “unforeseeable needs.” These earmarked funds only would be available if the ARC is occupied in 2015.
An additional $183,000 also would be available in 2015 if overtime costs or leave buyouts exceed a certain amount. In his response to Campbell’s draft, Snaza also asked for that sum in the 2016 budget.
Sheriff’s Office officials and the commissioners also are debating funding for contract housing. Currently, the county spends $412,000 per year to house inmates in other Washington jails, such as inLewis and Chelan counties. An average of 19.2 inmates are held in contract housing at a given time.
Snaza said that even though the new jail offers significantly more beds than the old one — the ARC has a 395-person capacity, while the Thurston County Jail has a 316-person capacity — there may still be a need for contract housing.
That largely depends on the number of mentally ill inmates, Snaza said. Typically, mentally ill inmates are housed in two-person cells, requiring more space.
Sheriff’s Office officials also asked for more money in 2017 if funding is insufficient in 2015 and 2016.
Campbell said she recognizes the sheriff’s concerns, and she’ll try to remedy them while still protecting the county budget. Wolfe asked her to complete the next draft of the letter of intent by Wednesday so that the group can meet again that afternoon.
“This is an important issue, and I want to meet again as soon as possible,” Wolfe said.