The Thurston County Commission built a $45 million jail four years ago, but has never allocated sufficient funds to open it. Facing public and political pressure to stop spending money to maintain an empty building, the commissioners have – once again -- decided to make it the Sheriff’s Office’s problem.
But Sheriff John Snaza has refused to put public safety in further jeopardy by opening the new jail without adequate funding, as did his predecessor Dan Kimball. If commissioners want to open the jail, they should fund it.
We recognize that the county (like most counties in the state) has acute fiscal problems, and that balancing its budget is incredibly difficult.
Even so, it’s unreasonable to under-fund the Sheriff’s Office and expect the Sheriff to open the jail.
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The commission has given Snaza a Hobson’s choice. It looks like he is free to choose how to allocate his $34 million budget to open the new jail, but he can only do that if he makes further cuts to law enforcement deputies.
The Sheriff’s Office budget comprises two nearly equal divisions: operating the jail (corrections officers) and law enforcement (deputies). Personnel costs account for more than 90 percent of the total expense.
If Snaza agrees to open the new jail without a commitment for providing basic funding to maintain current staffing levels, he will have to lay off more deputies. The demands of the new facility make it impossible to reduce the number of corrections officers.
At best, and even if the corrections union ratifies a contract with a new 12-hour shift, cutting six or seven more deputies would only provide funding for minimum staffing levels at the new jail. That runs the risk of falling below minimum levels and incurring expensive overtime pay, potentially causing more layoffs.
Reducing the number of deputies would have a dramatic and negative effect on community safety. Thurston County is already at the bottom of the state in the deputy-to-citizens-served ratio.
Compared to counties with similar collective bargaining agreements, Thurston is short 24 officers or deputies per 1,000 residents. It would have to hire 72 new officers or deputies to meet the average ratio of surrounding counties.
County commissioners have clearly placed a higher priority on opening the new jail than paying for deputies. But we doubt the majority of citizens share that view.
Given the choice between an overcrowded jail or having a deputy at their door in a timely fashion, we think people would choose the latter without hesitation. If someone is being assaulted or threatened with a weapon, even an extra minute is too long to wait for help.
But we need to open the new jail.
To do that, the County Commission should show leadership. It could, for example, reduce its own budget, or aim for a smaller reserve in 2015, and use those savings to fund the opening and operation of the new jail. It could implement one of the many revenue ideas proposed by the independently elected county officials.
Leadership starts at the top. We know that the county faces extremely tough budget decisions, but public safety ought to be a top priority.