YAKIMA, Wash. — Yakima County has a jail deal for the city of Yakima and any other municipality that might want in. It’s called regionalization.
Whether the deal closes won’t be determined until after the first of the year when the City Council expects a consultant’s report on the future of city jail operations, namely whether to stay with the current 78-bed jail or expand with a new building.
The consultant’s recommendation will then be compared against the county’s offer.
Under the consolidation scenario, the city of Yakima could save at least $1 million a year by closing the city jail and moving misdemeanor inmates to the county jail. The county, meanwhile, would receive more revenue from the city bed rentals for its beleaguered jail operation.
County officials want to talk about regionalization with any city that has a jail, saying it would be a mutual benefit for government and taxpayers.
“It is a piece of that big consolidation theory of mine that, generally speaking, if we band together, we can do things more efficiently and avoid duplication in management,” said commission Chairman Rand Elliott.
For example, Elliott points to an existing shared city-county purchasing department, which streamlines and contains costs. Another example: The county provides information technology management for the city of Sunnyside.
Sunnyside is dealing with its own jail budget problems, stemming from a reduction in the number of beds rented by the U.S. Marshals Service. Sunnyside must subsidize the jail operation to the tune of $448,500 in 2013 because of the lost revenue.
Interim city manager Frank Sweet said the regionalization idea has merit.
“We’re willing to discuss anything that makes sense,” he said. Details would have to be ironed out, such as what happens to corrections officers who double as dispatchers.
Cindy Helberg, administrative assistant in charge of the four-cell Grandview city jail, said she’d prefer to see Sunnyside as a regional jail hub. And instead of a regional jail in Yakima, Hull would like to see Superior Court expand to the Lower Valley so local officers don’t have to transport felons to the county jail.
“If we could keep all of our own cases, that would certainly save us a lot of money,” Hull said.
A regional jail wouldn’t benefit the city of Wapato, Mayor Jesse Farias said. The city earns $300,000 annually by renting beds. About $200,000 offsets jail operating costs while the rest funds other city services.
“We would not be interested,” Farias said. “There’s not a ton of money to be made off of it, but I’ll take the $100,000,” he said.
A regional model already exists in Spokane, where the city and county have an ambitious goal: consolidating not only jail services but the entire criminal justice system — courts, prosecution, defense and probation. City and county law enforcement will remain independent.
Spokane County has the same issue as Yakima County — eliminating duplication at a time when tax dollars are tight. The discussions started where Yakima County and the city are now, over the costs of incarcerating city inmates in the county jail. But the scope in Spokane has been expanded to look at the entire criminal justice system.
“With revenue streams stagnant, we don’t want to keep putting more money in criminal justice,” said Marlene Feist, public affairs officer for the city of Spokane. “The system has to have balance so we can continue to have robust street programs, libraries and parks so that all the money doesn’t end up de facto in the criminal justice system.”
Feist estimated 60 percent of the city’s budget is allocated to public safety and criminal justice.
The consolidation discussions could be expanded to include the city of Spokane Valley, population 90,000, but that hasn’t happened yet.
“We started with the two largest players with the most money in the mix,” Feist said. “We need to look at the whole system.”
The city of Spokane looked into contracting for inmate housing with Benton County at a cost of $56 per inmate per day as opposed to the $130 per day the county was charging. But with the launch of the overall review, that housing contract is on hold. Expanding alternatives to incarceration in the form of pretrial release, home detention, and other ways to lower the jail population are part of the discussion as they are in Yakima County.
Yakima County officials are intrigued by what the city and county of Spokane are doing and plan to visit for a first-hand look at the still-developing plan.
Yakima County certainly has the space to accommodate Yakima city prisoners. The county jail has lost rental customers from other jurisdictions, leaving unused capacity for about 90 inmates. The operating capacity of the county jail and its annex is 750.
The county could handle more inmates for brief periods of time. The average inmate population of 660 includes 270 from the city of Yakima. The number includes 65 under a housing contract for misdemeanants because the city doesn’t have room for them in the city jail and 200 felony offenders. Cities pay the county for holding misdemeanants, while the county is responsible for felony defendants. The county charges cities for inmates’ medical care. Forrest Smith, budget director for the Department of Corrections, said charges to the city for outside medical care have ranged from $220,000 to as much as $350,000.
Under its contract with Yakima County, the city must pay for 110 beds whether they are all used or not.
Daily rates are $54.79 per inmate per day, a total cost of about $2.2 million per year. Including operation of the city jail on South Third Street, the city of Yakima is spending $3.8 million per year for jail services.
County Jail Director Ed Campbell said were the city to increase its contract with the county to 140 inmates and close the city jail, the total cost would be about $2.8 million. The city would save $1 million as a result, according to county estimates, but could be higher.
During a recent city-county study session on jail issues, county budget officials raised questions about whether the city is taking into account all of its costs for operating the city jail, including costs for liability insurance, technology costs, maintenance and other costs.
City Manger Tony O’Rourke said the city wants to review the consultant’s report in order to compare the city’s costs with what the county is offering. He said any discussion now with the county would be premature.
“We really need our data to serve as a benchmark to compare with the county,” he said.
Elliott said the county plans to make a formal proposal to the city to house all city inmates once that consultant report is finished. The outcome will be a policy decision for the city council to make. But Elliott added the county is confident it can provide the service and provide a benefit to both.
“In my opinion, government is here to provide the services we are asked to provide as efficiently as we can,” he said. “How to do that best and cheapest is the way we should be doing things.”
• Reporters Mark Morey, Ross Courtney and Phil Ferolito contributed to this report.
• David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or firstname.lastname@example.org