County lacks money to run new ARC jail

Crews will finish construction on Thurston County's new jail by the end of this year or in early 2011, but exactly when it will hold offenders is unknown.

Thurston County commissioners said Wednesday during a visit with The Olympian Editorial Board that the county’s current financial condition leaves no money to operate the facility.

County Manager Don Krupp said it’s “hard to say” when that might change, adding that the county plans to look at phasing in staffing and partnering with other local governments to begin operations at the new jail, formally known as the Accountability and Restitution Center, or ARC.

“We’ll have to figure out a way to make it work,” he said.

The county has slashed $7 million from its general fund and 12 percent of its work force from mid-2008 through the new year because of a significant drop in tax revenue to the general fund brought on by the national recession. County officials had planned to turn to that fund to pay for the additional staffing.

Commissioners maintained that constructing the first phase of what now is a two-phase jail project was wise despite the uncertainty over staffing. With general contractors looking for work in the down economy and low interest rates on bonds, it “was the cheapest time to do it,” Commissioner Sandra Romero said.

The existing jail at the county courthouse is overcrowded and old, and maintenance costs continue to climb, she added. It was built in 1975.

Commissioner Karen Valenzuela, who has held her seat since February, said she had opposed the new jail but since has changed her mind, in part because of the existing jail’s condition. She said stopping construction midway through would be more expensive in the long run. She added that some of the county’s recent decisions, including reducing the number of director-led departments and establishing a building reserve fund, will put it on solid financial ground so it can examine staffing the new jail.

In addition to the recession-driven decline in sales-tax revenue, a primary revenue source for the general fund, the county got other bad news related to the fund. An initiative by the state Department of Revenue to reallocate sales-tax revenues to local governments did not generate the amount of money the county expected. The state agency initially projected that the move would generate an additional $4.3 million for the county’s coffers, Krupp said. A previous county commission dedicated that additional revenue to staffing the jail.

“The state’s projections were way off-base,” the county manager said.

Voters handily rejected a bond measure in 2004 to pay for a $102.7 million regional justice center that would house judges, prosecutors, court employees and inmates.

Officials then decided to construct a scaled-down satellite jail using the county’s existing budget within Mottman Industrial Park in Tumwater, near the juvenile and family justice center.

The county is paying for the first phase with detention sales-tax revenue. Voters approved the one-tenth-of-1-percent increase in 1995. State law limits the use of this money to the costs associated with building and operating juvenile detention centers and jails. Krupp said the fund doesn’t have enough money to cover the debt service on the bonds and pay staffing costs.

Krupp said it would cost $5 million more to operate the ARC at full capacity. The existing corrections budget is $14 million.

In 2008, a task force of county officials convened at the direction of county commissioners. It recommended consolidating jail operations at an expanded Mottman site. The county would need to hire fewer additional employees and would save on operating costs with a merger, to the tune of $2.5 million a year, according to its report.

The ARC as currently designed would hold 352 beds for inmates. The task force recommended adding between 224 and 256 beds in a second phase. There would remain 130 beds for inmates granted work release at the existing jail. The task force recommended moving those inmates to the expanded ARC “as soon as it is financially realistic to do so.” That’s a total of 706 to 738 beds. Inmates were scheduled to transfer to the ARC upon the completion of the second phase.

The $20 million second phase, scheduled to begin immediately after construction is finished on the first, is on hold. The county planned to finance the project with real-estate excise taxes, which are assessed on property transactions in the county. Revenue from the tax has dropped by half since the height of the housing boom, as home sales have slowed significantly, Krupp said.

Christian Hill: 360-754-5427