The agreement signed Friday between Thurston County commissioners and Sheriff John Snaza to open the county’s mothballed $48 million jail was overdue. Credit Commissioners Cathy Wolfe, Sandra Romero and Bud Blake as well as Snaza for finding ways to trust each other.
Opening the 4-year-old facility is ultimately in taxpayers’ interest, and it will be a relief for jail inmates now living in a decrepit, over crowded facility.
But the deal doesn’t leave us in a mood to party. This kind of agreement – basically to get stuff done that was promised to the public – is what elected officials get paid to do.
Keeping the new, empty jail ready since its October 2010 completion has cost about $1.8 million.
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This is on a project that officials say – without seeming to appreciate the irony – was completed on time and under budget.
Still to be worked out is a date for opening the Accountability and Restitution Center, a $48 million project completed in 2010 in Tumwater. Known as the ARC, it offers 395 inmate beds and 96 more for work release. The old jail at the County Courthouse site will be used as a daytime holding area for inmates making court appearances.
Snaza has said the opening could come in 90 to 120 days, but certainly by summer’s end.
County commissioners broke ground on the project late in 2008, four years after county voters rejected a larger, costlier project. But just as commissioners moved ahead, the Great Recession landed, blowing holes in budgets.
Former sheriff Dan Kimball has said he thinks the jail could have been opened on time if the recession hadn’t torched the tax base.
Wolfe argued late Friday that the turning point in the saga to open the replacement jail was a labor agreement reached last fall with corrections staff. Jail deputies agreed to switch to 12 hour shifts, which lets fewer staff operate it.
Then news stories – and exhortations from this page in December – reminded parties this was a problem that needed fixing.
All along, the parties were not far apart financially. In finding a way to trust each other, commissioners agreed to some of Sheriff Snaza’s demands for guarantees for unforeseen costs – something Wolfe previously claimed was unworkable.
But rather than deposit the entire amount into Snaza’s $17.9 million corrections budget, commissioners are holding the cash in their accounts, forcing him to ask for it when certain cost thresholds are exceeded. And they are transferring some commissary staffing costs into their own budget.
But in the end, the agreement calls for additional total outlays for the jail in the neighborhood of the $500,000 that the sheriff said last year he needed. This outlay comes after commissioners agreed in 2013 to boost his budget by $600,000 and add about 15 officers to raise jail staffing, which now will mean about 116 positions overall.
“The big difference is what he’s asking for this year are things that were negotiated in the union contract last year,” Wolfe said. “Just saying give me the money doesn’t work for us.’’
Perhaps that’s true. Onlookers are still left to wonder whether personality conflicts were always at the root of the disagreement.