Turn on a faucet at Thurston County's Accountability and Restitution Center and you'll get water. Walk into one of the facility's many rooms and the lights turn on automatically.
As project manager Robyn Sederberg walked through the facility last month, Corrections Capt. George Eaton checked the doors for remote access and camera visibility. Vacuum cleaners and mops dotted the long hallways.
“We are 99 percent done,” Sederberg said.
The ARC, a corrections facility in the Mottman Industrial Park in Tumwater, was designed to be a satellite of the main jail at the Thurston County Courthouse. The $45 million project reached substantial completion last month – meaning it can do what it was built to do: house inmates.
But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. As contractors go through the final punch list on the 100,000-square-foot building, the county is likely to let it sit empty for at least the next year.
The reasons: lack of money to staff and operate it; and, thanks to declining jail population, less need for it than when it was proposed, County Manager Don Krupp said.
“What we’re planning on is making sure the budget provides what is required for minimum maintenance of the facility,” he said.
The building’s mechanical and electrical systems must be kept running to avoid damage. That will cost about $430,000 in 2011.
Funding for the ARC comes mainly from a voter-approved sales tax increase for detention capital and operating costs. About $4 million is available, but that money must also cover operations and debt service on the juvenile detention center, improvements at the current jail and debt retirement for the ARC.
“At the current rate of revenue, we have not presumed that there is additional capacity to cover additional operations, at least at the time being,” Krupp said.
Growth in sales tax revenue to fund operations could be years away, Krupp added.
Based on that, an optimistic timetable for the ARC being staffed in any capacity is 2012, he said.
NOT YOUR COUNTY JAIL
The ARC was never meant to replace the county jail.
Officials initially proposed building a regional justice center that would have included a complete new jail in 2004. County voters rejected that idea by a significant margin. Officials then decided to develop a satellite jail instead, which became the just-completed ARC.
A proposed second phase of the ARC, to be financed by a real estate excise tax, would have added enough capacity and separate units to transfer the entire jail population – except for inmates on work release. It would have saved the county $2.5 million annually by housing jail operations in one facility. Phase 2 would have added 120 to 228 beds.
The county halted plans for the second phase in late 2008, when the bottom dropped out of the real estate market, cutting in half the revenue from the real estate excise tax.
One consistent critic of the project says it never should have been built in the first place.
Bill Pilkey, who has run for county offices and is the president of the Thurston County Taxpayers’ Association, said the county might not have enough money to operate the ARC for at least five years and should have listened to voters in 2004, when they rejected the justice center proposal.
“It was a mistake to build it,” he said.
Pilkey, a former chief fiscal analyst for the House Republican caucus, said a tax increase could be used to get the new building opened sooner. That would be the wrong thing to do, given the voters’ 2004 rejection of a new jail, he said.
With Phase 2 off the table, one option is to use both the county jail and the ARC at the same time. But once again, the cost makes that impossible in the short term.
Running both would cost $4.3 million annually. It would require hiring 40 additional staff members, including 24 corrections deputies at a cost of roughly $78,000 each in annual salary and benefits, according to county estimates.
In early 2009, the County Commission considered mothballing ARC Phase 1 construction. But figures came back showing costs related to securing the site would eat into the general fund and potentially jeopardize future financing, Krupp said.
'MANAGEABLE' FOR NOW
While a lack of money is ultimately keeping the ARC empty, the shortfall comes at a time when the county’s jail population is down from past years – making the need for the ARC less immediate, corrections officials say.
In 2006, a year after county commissioners directed their staff to plan for the ARC, the 316-bed main county jail averaged 328 inmates a day, Chief Deputy Todd Thoma said.
Inmates often had to sleep on the floor, he said.
But then the jail population, mirroring national trends, dropped to 292 on average in 2008 and 299 last year.
“It’s been manageable,” Thoma said of the current jail population.
Purely on the basis of beds, the ARC – with 352 beds – could handle the current jail population.
But the diversity of the jail’s population requires that prisoners be segregated on the basis of sex and other classifications, including the types of crimes prisoners committed or are accused of.
The current jail has 80 cells divided among 13 units that can be used to segregate prisoners; the ARC has 64 cells spread through eight units.
The limited number of segregation units at the ARC would make it impossible to transfer all the prisoners in the current jail to the new facility, said Eaton, the corrections captain who has been a liaison for the Sheriff’s Office during the ARC’s construction. The Sheriff’s Office runs the county jail.
“Just in the male population, you need a lot of separate housing units,” Eaton said. “Eight (units) doesn’t allow us to do that.”
ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
Those who will eventually oversee the ARC in the Sheriff’s Office and on the county commission want to see the building put to use but have few ideas for how to make that happen.
John Snaza, a sheriff’s deputy running for sheriff as an independent, has said one of his goals is to staff the ARC within his first four years in office.
“I think we can do it,” he said. “It just takes a lot of working with commissioners.”
He said he would consider retrofitting of the ARC if it meant a transfer of the jail population.
His Democratic challenger, sheriff’s Lt. Debra Mealy, said the delay of Phase 2 puts the county in a bind with regard to transferring the jail population to the ARC.
“If we can utilize part of it cost-effectively and safely, I’d be for it,” she said. “But it will be difficult to find ways to save money and staff both facilities.”
The commission received five alternatives for the ARC in August, four of which included putting people in the facility. The commissioners are weighing those options; the county staff has recommended either leaving the building empty or transferring the county’s court administrative staff to the building.
Commissioner Karen Valenzuela, a Democrat up for election, said the commission will consider anything at this point to find a viable option for the facility. Her goal is to have a transition plan in place by the end of 2011.
“It seems like an awful lot of money for an empty building,” she said of the $427,000-a-year minimum maintenance option.
Finding money to open the ARC in 2012 or beyond also will be a challenge, with early projections showing a less-than-promising general fund budget in the coming years, Valenzuela said.
Her challenger, Republican Pat Beehler, said getting the facility open is important and that, if elected, he’ll work with the Sheriff’s Office on finding enough funds to do so. Calling the current jail dreadful, Beehler said the ARC’s additional meeting rooms for programming will provide a better chance for rehabilitation.
In the meantime, he supports keeping the ARC closed and maintaining the building’s systems.
The commission already has set aside money for 2011 for minimum maintenance of the ARC.
Krupp continues to explore options for potential use.
Officials discussed using the site as a hub for work release, but a $300,000 retrofit would have been required, and three additional corrections deputies would have been needed, at a total cost of about $240,000 annually.
Leasing the facility also is an option. Officials from the cities of Olympia and Tumwater have toured the facility, but there are no proposals on the table, Krupp said.
Commission Chairwoman Sandra Romero said her goal is to make sure the county doesn’t have an empty building.
“It is unacceptable to the county commissioners for us to spend half a million (dollars) on empty space,” she said. “It’s pretty expensive air, and it’s one of those things we are actively looking to mitigate.”
Nate Hulings: 360-754-5476 email@example.com