There’s no easy (or cheap) fix to county’s jail fiasco

The OlympianNovember 8, 2013 

The Thurston County Commission presented its proposed 2014 budget last week and, as expected, it included yet another plan to open the controversial new $45 million jail, known as the Accountability and Restitution Center (ARC).

That sounds like a good idea, and to its credit the commission is trying to make the best of a bad situation.

But like all their previous good intentions to utilize an unoccupied expensive drag on county finances — estimated at more than $400,000 per year — this latest plan has created practical and political complications.

Sheriff John Snaza and Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim oppose the new plan because, they say, it sacrifices public safety. In order to open the ARC, and balance the county budget during a period of declining revenue, commissioners are cutting the criminal justice budget.

Snaza and Tunheim set a higher priority on maintaining current numbers of deputies and prosecutors than spending $1.2 million to open the ARC.

To be fair, the commission is also reducing just about every other department’s budget. But Snaza thinks his cuts go too deep. He anticipates laying off five or more deputies, which will increase response time to priority calls. He says Thurston County already has the fewest number of deputies per capita in the state.

Commissioners say Snaza has complete freedom over where to cut his budget, and that reducing deputies is only one option.

This is not a new battle. The County Commission has fought with previous sheriffs over budgetary issues.

And the county has struggled for years to find a way to open a new jail that a majority of Thurston County voters didn’t want. In 2004, citizens overwhelmingly rejected an $88 million bond to build a new jail with a 61.6 percent “no” vote.

But the commission, which included current Commissioner Cathy Wolfe, went ahead anyway with a scaled-down $45 million plan. It’s been vacant ever since.

Meanwhile, prisoners at the old jail are sleeping on mattresses on the floor, and overcrowding in an obsolete facility is creating safety concerns for inmates and corrections deputies. It’s an unacceptable situation, especially with a brand-new facility sitting empty just miles away.

When someone gets injured or an inmate files a human rights lawsuit, closing an unsafe jail might move up on everybody’s priority list.

Right now, political considerations might be skewing a common vision. Snaza, Tunheim and County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela all face re-election next year.

Even though Valenzuela wasn’t part of the commission that built the ARC, she probably doesn’t want to carry the political liability of a white elephant into the 2014 general election. And Snaza probably doesn’t relish the thought of facing voters angry over fewer deputies responding to calls.

It’s a classic standoff. Snaza feels like the commissioners are throwing him to the wolves to save their own political skins. Commissioners think Snaza is obstructing progress.

Three years ago, former Sheriff Dan Kimball also opposed opening the jail because, he said at the time, “The county doesn’t have it (the money to open the jail). It’s a mess. I can’t lie to people — it’s a mess.”

It’s a mess of the county’s own making, and taxpayers expect the commission, the sheriff and other elected county officials to fix it.

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