Thurston County reveals priorities in 2014 budget

The OlympianDecember 8, 2013 

If you want to know the values of an organization in either the public or private sector, don’t look at their mission statement. Look at how they spend their money.

Applying that principal to the 2014 Thurston County budget, there’s no doubt that commissioners have placed a high priority on finally opening its brand new, but unused, $45 million jail, known as the accountability and restitution center (ARC) at Mottman Industrial Park.

We applaud that decision. The ARC was beginning to look like a terrible waste of taxpayer money, especially to the 61.6 percent of voters who rejected the original $88 million plan in 2004. Commissioners went ahead anyway with a scaled-down version, but have never found enough money to hire the necessary corrections officers.

So how did the commission find the money now? It hasn’t, yet.

The 2014 budget slashes county spending, including more than $1.7 million from the Sheriff’s Department. Of that amount, the commission took $360,000 out of Sheriff John Snaza’s budget for correction officers.

Snaza says that cut prevents him from hiring the five additional officers he needs to open the jail, unless the commission can successfully negotiate a change to modified 12-hour shifts with the union. Those talks are in progress and the outcome remains uncertain.

At the sheriff’s insistence in 2011, the county hired a consulting firm to figure out how they could afford to open the ARC. The report’s key conclusion said the current staffing schedule of 98 corrections employees is ineffective and spreads the system thin, forcing the county to spend $45,000 a month in overtime.

The consultant proposed corrections officers work 12-hour shifts. That would put jail staff at minimum requirements less of the time, thus saving six positions and about $500,000 a year.

Whether or not the County Commission succeeds in its union negotiations and opens the new jail, the deep cuts it has applied to the law enforcement budget will continue. And that raises public safety concerns.

The 2014 budget slices $899,000 from the sheriff’s operational budget. Snaza says that will force him to lay off six deputies and incur new overtime expense. It will push county law enforcement back to pre-1990 staffing levels over a period when calls for service have more than doubled.

We expect the sheriff will have to reprioritize how the department deploys its deputies. Right now, the average response time for priority one calls –the most serious crimes, such as those involving firearms or rape — is 10 minutes, 11 seconds. Snaza believes the average should be less than 9 minutes. But it’s more likely the response time will go up with fewer deputies, because they are also newly burdened with handling traffic accidents on county roads. That’s a chore previously handled by the State Patrol.

Some commissioners have suggested the sheriff should find other ways to trim his budget, implying that some departmental salaries are too high. But corrections officers, deputies and captains, and chiefs all belong to unions, who negotiate with the commission. They sign the contracts, not the sheriff.

We hope this all works out. Opening the new jail and closing the overcrowded and outdated old facility should be a priority. But so is law enforcement, and anyone with the unfortunate experience of having been a victim of crime would agree.

If someone is holding a gun to your head or you are being assaulted, even 9 minutes is too long to wait for help.

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