Strapped for revenue and facing continued erosion of bed-rental income from the city of Yakima, Yakima County may get a financial lifeline from the state.

At least that is the direction state lawmakers are giving the state Department of Corrections.

Versions of the state House and Senate biennial operating budgets released last week require the state agency to look at contracting with counties for housing certain medium-security offenders. The two versions have some differences in language that would have to be sorted through in conference prior to passage.

The Legislature’s idea is an alternative to the Corrections Department’s proposal to expand the Washington Corrections Center at Shelton in Western Washington to deal with overcrowding in state prisons.

Yakima County commissioners have lobbied area lawmakers to pursue the contracting alternative.

“It is a positive that the state recognizes the counties have capacity,” said Commissioner Kevin Bouchey, who handles legislative affairs for the three commissioners. “Rather than commit tax dollars to build new facilities, legislators are recognizing that local counties such as Yakima have capacity and we should look at how to utilize that capacity.”

Rep. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, and a member of the House Capital Budget Committee, is one of them.

“Especially given the budget constraints, we need to look at different options,” Warnick said in a recent interview. “We can’t build just because some think we need a new center.”

A contract to house as many as 100 state inmates would provide Yakima County $2.3 million a year at a legislatively imposed cap of $65 per inmate a day. The annual revenue figure is about what the county could lose when a housing contract with the city of Yakima expires at the end of this year.

The city has been paying the county $54.75 per day for 110 beds whether all of them are used or not. But the City Council recently decided it could save money by contracting with Sunnyside and Toppenish to house the inmate overflow from its jail. That means the city would not accept a proposal from the county to house all city inmates.

The city’s plan would cost $3.2 million instead of the $3.8 million estimate had the city gone with the county’s offer. The city would continue to use the county jail for inmates with mental health issues and those with serious medical conditions. But were the county to accept those types of inmates, the daily housing rate is likely to rise substantially.

“We clearly told the city if they don’t have a contract, they will be on a spot rate and there will be uncertainty as to what that rate will be,” said commission Chairman Mike Leita. “We want to house inmates on a more consistent and stabilized basis in terms of population and the types of inmates we are getting.”

A spot rate could be double the $49.75 per day the county offered under a new contract for all city inmates.

Leita added the county will not close its jail annex, which was suggested in the aftermath of the city’s decision. The county is aggressively seeking inmate housing contracts from other potential customers in addition to the state, he said.

The county has the space to house more inmates. The total population Thursday was 600. The jail’s current capacity is 850. That included 412 felony inmates, 100 misdemeanants from county cities, 26 state inmates housed for violating the conditions of their release, and 62 inmates booked in by federal agencies, according to Forrest Smith, budget director for the county Department of Corrections.

Part of the county’s jail financial problems stem from a decision by state Corrections Department last year to implement a different punishment system for offenders who violate the conditions of their release. Rather than book offenders for periods of a month or two, the new state program dubbed “Swift and Certain” lands the offender in jail for a few days.

The program, instituted almost a year ago, sent state inmate numbers plummeting at the county jail.

From a peak of an average of 80 state inmates per day in 2010 that earned the county $4.7 million a year, the new approach on parole violators saw revenue decline to a projected $1 million this year, Smith said.

The drop in state revenue, coupled with the end of a contract with cities in King County, blew big holes in the county jail budget. Where the county had jail revenues approaching $35 million in 2010, revenues for 2013 are about $22 million, a figure that includes a $2.8 million tax levy shift from the county road fund to close a portion of the jail revenue problem.

Director Ed Campbell has had to cut more than 100 positions and reduce contract amounts for medical services and other programs to reduce his budget. An infusion of state inmates and money would help alleviate some of financial pressure.

Campbell said it is too early to speculate how many state inmates might be funneled to Yakima County if the proposal passes the Legislature and is signed by the governor. “It could be pretty significant if the number is near 100.”

The House budget language orders the state Corrections Department to seek proposals from 10 counties in both Eastern and Western Washington by Aug. 1 to house a maximum of 300 inmates at a cap of $65 per day. Yakima County currently charges the state $85 per day to house state inmates, but would have to accept the lesser amount.

Language in the Senate bill caps daily rates at $70 and identifies eligible inmates as those with 120 days remaining in their sentence. A separate group of inmates sentenced to more than a year in prison but with less than a year to serve due to credit for time served in the county jail may also be included.

The Senate bill, which does not specify a number of inmates, allocates $1.8 million for fiscal year 2014 and $2 million the following year to finance the program.

Bouchey said what ultimately shakes out will benefit the state as well as the counties.

“It’s smart business on behalf of the state and a good use of taxpayer resources.”

• David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or dlester@yakimaherald.com.