Use jail opening to rebuild trust at county

A stalemate between the Thurston County Board of Commissioners and the Sheriff’s Office over how to fund the opening and ongoing operations at the new jail should have never happened. But politics and ideology, and the Great Recession, have forced both sides into their opposing and intractable positions.

If this dispute were only about funding, sensible people could resolve it quickly. Sheriff John Snaza says the County Commission underfunded his 2015 corrections department budget by about $500,000. Meanwhile, the County Commission will pay $400,000 again next year just to keep the four-year-old empty jail in a “warm closure” state.

It sounds like a difference of just $100,000. The County Commission should have no trouble finding that small amount in a nearly $300 million annual budget. In fact, it shouldn’t be difficult to find the whole $500,000, which is less than two-tenths of a percent (0.1667) of the total budget.

But this standoff is about more than money. First of all, it’s about ideology. Asking the county’s chief law enforcement officer to sacrifice public safety – he would have to cut 6-8 patrol deputies to cover his corrections department shortfall – is anathema to the sheriff of any county.

The commission made the same request of former Sheriff Dan Kimball and got the same reaction, including a legal dispute that ended when the County Commission paid $25,000 of taxpayer’s money to Kimball’s attorney. Why they expected a different response from the current sheriff is a mystery.

The new jail has been a political issue from its inception. The County Commission built the jail after voters rejected a $103 million bond measure, and the commission made a serious political error by building a scaled down version without seeking public support. The original $24 million plan ballooned into a $48 million final cost.

And now, after their planning has gone tragically awry, the commissioners are deflecting criticism onto the sheriff.

But in four years, the county has not proposed alternative funding, such as a public safety levy, to fund the jail. Based on the recent success of a similar measure in the City of Olympia, a reasonable proposal could succeed.

This scenario is but one example of an underlying problem at Thurston County: a breakdown in trust and teamwork between the County Commission and many of the independently elected officials.

Most of this tension results from extraordinary financial pressures brought on by the Great Recession and taxpayer initiatives that limited revenue options for county government. What was once a collaborative relationship between the commission and the other independent officials has turned adversarial.

But Thurston County taxpayers expect more from their elected officials. They expect the leaders they elect to work together for the common good.

The election of newcomer Bud Blake to the commission showed that the public wants change. It’s time for elected officials to rebuild mutual trust within county government, and finding the money to open the new jail is the place to start.