Is a deal near to open troubled new county jail?

The OlympianMay 7, 2014 

Conflicting reports are leaking out from the negotiations between Thurston County and the union representing county corrections deputies.

County commissioners and management feel optimistic about reaching a deal on 12-hour shifts that would pave the way to opening the new jail, otherwise known as the Accountability and Restitution Center. But other reports suggest the talks are headed for arbitration and that a deal is many months away.

We hope the optimists are right.

Since the new jail was completed in early 2011, Thurston County taxpayers have paid nearly $500,000 a year – plus millions paying down bond debt – to maintain a vacant facility. Limits on property tax increases and the Great Recession left the county with insufficient funds to hire the additional correction deputies needed to staff the facility.

The ARC was built to operate with the direct supervision model, which places deputies within the inmate population, not watching them on monitors from another room. Consultants sold the county on this model by promising it would provide better supervision and save money in the long term.

However, this model is more labor-intensive.

Thurston County commissioners have asked the corrections staff union to modify its contract and work a 12-hour shift schedule, which would eliminate overtime and save enough money to hire the necessary six or seven additional deputies. It’s a reasonable request that could benefit union members with longer periods of time off.

There’s no doubt the county needed a new jail.

Inmates are currently housed in overcrowded and unsafe conditions, with some sleeping on the floor almost every night. The county also regularly pays hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to other jails to house inmates that exceed the old jail’s capacity.

The ARC has been plagued with problems from the beginning. Thurston County residents voted about 65 percent against the original $102.7 million ballot measure to build a regional justice center that would have located judges, prosecutors, court employees and inmates all in one facility.

It’s difficult to fault the County Commission for going ahead with a scaled-down, $45 million version in 2008 just as the Great Recession got underway. Not many elected officials or private entrepreneurs predicted the economy would fall so quickly or so far.

But taxpayers should expect the County Commission to solve this problem. And they have been trying, albeit without success.

Taxpayers are left to hope for a positive outcome from the remaining two mediation sessions between the county and the corrections union that take place over the next few weeks. If the two sides can reach agreement, the ARC could open quickly.

That would be a relief for everyone involved.

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