Perhaps newly elected Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza's fresh eyes can find a solution to the recently completed, but unused, county jail.
Let’s hope so because the $45 million Accountability and Restitution Center stands as a white elephant today — a tribute to poor timing, a declining inmate population and an unforeseen economic recession.
We’re encouraged that Snaza, who assumed office in January after his election in November, is following through quickly on his campaign pledge to seek an early resolution to the jail issue.
Thurston County taxpayers have every reason to be angry that the new jail, built in Tumwater’s Mottman Industrial Park, is new but unoccupied. It was estimated earlier that it would cost taxpayers nearly a half million dollars a year just to keep the lights on and the 100,000 square foot building in good working order so it’s ready when county officials finally have a tenant.
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In the words of County Administrator Don Krupp, the jail issue is “a mess.”
We certainly agree and suspect that most taxpayers would, too.
Part of the problem is the design of the new jail. The ARC is designed as a direct supervision model. County correction officers will mingle among the inmates instead of watching them with television cameras from a centralized control room.
It is a labor intensive supervisory model that is costly to operate. Yet studies show it’s less costly in the long run because there is less violence, less vandalism and the guards can intervene more quickly as issues arise among inmates.
The county has estimated it will cost $3 million to open the doors of the new jail — money the county simply does not have during this national economic recession.
So the newly constructed county jail sits empty as Thurston County and its three largest cities are spending about $1.15 million a year to send local inmates to other jails. That looks to the average citizen like a terrible waste of tax money and resources. But, again, county officials say they don’t have the $3 million necessary to hire additional staff and get the doors open.
County officials, including former Sheriff Dan Kimball, have been scrambling for alternatives such as allowing a private contractor to operate the facility or take prisoners from other jurisdictions so the county could afford to get the doors open and begin to fill up the 352-bed jail.
But so far those attempts have come up short.
Like the public, Snaza is frustrated with the status quo. Local prisoners continue to be housed elsewhere and the county is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to simply maintain an empty building.
County officials have suggested moving the Sheriff’s Office patrol division into the Accountability and Restitution Center, as well as checking the cost of permits for retrofitting the new jail to accommodate the options/work release program.
Snaza is not supportive of either option saying he wants to keep the new lockup prepared for the day — hopefully sometime this year — when the ARC can be opened as a county jail as intended.
“We need something because we’re at an impasse right now,” Snaza says.
The sheriff wants to hire a consultant to look at other options. County commissioners are not opposed to that idea, but say the money for an outside consultant must come from within the sheriff’s own budget.
Krupp says keeping both the current jail and the ARC open would cost $4.3 million annually and require 40 additional people, including 24 corrections deputies.
Snaza admits, “There’s no way I could afford to do that.”
The sheriff said if a consultant comes back saying that retrofits are needed or an addition to the ARC is required, at least the county will have options to consider versus today’s inactivity. “Let’s get something going so that we can figure out what we gotta do,” Snaza said.
We agree. Hiring a consultant would get the county off the dime, spell out realistic options and — hopefully — pave the way for a resolution to this long running “mess” of a brand new, but empty $45 million jail.