Mike Leita says transforming the Pacific Avenue jail into a service center for the homeless is his most important achievement as a Yakima County commissioner.

Tuesday morning, Tuesday, Dec. 3, Leita and commissioners Ron Anderson and Norm Childress are expected to approve the county’s mental health charter, which establishes a task force and a long-term plan to better connect mental health and substance abuse services to those most in need.

Those services will be offered at the jail when it is transformed into the Yakima County Care Campus, which will include a homeless shelter and long-term and permanent housing.

“That will be my last decision and I feel like I have closed my obligations and it’s time for me to move on,” Leita said in an interview.

Leita, 72, retires at the end of this month after 15 years in office.

During his tenure, a county administrator was eliminated and commissioners took a more active role in government.

Department heads were established, severe budget problems were overcome and now a jail that mostly sat idle will be put to use.

Leita said he plans to stay active in the community after leaving office, but isn’t sure how.

“My family is going to be my first priority,” he said. “For the next six months I’m going to be evaluating.”

One thing he’s made clear: He’s not interested in becoming Yakima’s mayor if voters approve a measure changing the city’s government to a strong-mayor system.

Leita has been a vocal proponent of the change, along with former Mayor Dave Edler and Yakima Valley Business Times Publisher Bruce Smith.

“I have to believe there are many community members in a better position than me to serve,” he said.

Pacific Avenue jail

Leita said it was efforts by former commissioners to build a second jail that led to him to seek office in 2004.

The plan was to build a second jail for the sole purpose of housing inmates from other communities under contract. The contracts were expected to generate significant revenue.

“It didn’t make sense from a business standpoint because they only had short-term or seven-year agreements,” Leita said. “So you were exposing yourself to significant debt.”

That’s what happened.

The county had entered an agreement with a consortium of communities in King County to house inmates under a single seven-year contract. But construction of the new jail was delayed and an agreed-upon completion date wasn’t met.

“We weren’t actually able to open the jail until 2006,” Leita recalled. “We were in default of the agreement and King County was upset about that.”

In 2010, King County didn’t renew the contract, which was worth millions of dollars.

“We were in some very difficult financial challenges,” Leita said. “I don’t think the community understands how challenging that was.”

Financial tailspin

The county depended on the revenue from those contracts to pay for the construction debt of the new $25 million jail.

There were pay freezes and layoffs. The Pacific Avenue jail — never fully utilized — was closed.

Commissioners established a new pay rate system that didn’t include automatic step increases.

Revenue was shifted from a road levy and other funds in the county’s law and justice system to cover the construction debt.

“We used any means to balance the budget,” Leita said. “That was the mindset during those eight years.”

During those years, commissioners clashed with Sheriff’s Office deputies who wanted a 4% pay increase.

“We knew during those times, we could barely afford a 2% increase,” Leita said.

The labor dispute was headed for binding arbitration and commissioners eventually signed the agreement approving the 4% bump.

But commissioners didn’t increase the Sheriff’s Office’s overall budget beyond the 2% all other departments received. Leita said commissioners warned the Sheriff’s Office of that.

Several deputies were laid off as a result.

“We didn’t make decisions that were popular,” Leita said. “We didn’t always take the easy road, and that’s the most challenging thing about public office.”

Leita said the county needed to live within its means and further tax increases weren’t an option.

“To be responsible, sometimes you have to say no,” he said. “You can’t just always give money.”

Former Commissioner Rand Elliott, who served during that time, credits Leita for leading the county though the financial crunch.

“Looking back and reflecting on those years, I think he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for getting the county’s finances in order,” Elliott said. “Mike was a fearless leader in that effort and I give him high marks for that.”

Standing firm

Leita stuck to his guns on marijuana.

He and fellow commissioners banned recreational marijuana businesses from unincorporated areas of the county.

Leita said the ban was implemented because county voters rejected the legalization of recreational marijuana, despite statewide approval in 2012.

Votes later upheld the ban in an advisory vote.

Leita didn’t flinch when marijuana businesses formed an association and threatened to sue if the county attempted to shut them down.

“We had very specific interest groups that came forward and tried to intimidate us with information that we believed was bloated and the decision we were making was not about our personal values,” Leita said. “We clearly heard in two different advisory votes, our community said no. They didn’t want production, growing and retail. if you look at the numbers, I think they said no.”

Another controversial decision involved the county’s water utility, which assesses meter and usage fees on all new rural domestic wells in the county.

Commissioners established the utility despite skepticism from drillers, landowners and even farmers.

The Yakima River Basin is over-allocated, and the utility is needed to account for water usage and provide for future rural development, proponents argue.

The water utility ties into the larger Yakima Basin Integrated Water Management Plan, which involves county, state and federal officials as well as the Yakama Nation, farmers, environmentalists and landowners. The plan includes improving water storage and management to assure enough water for fish, farmers and landowners throughout the basin.

The work has brought divergent groups together to find solutions.

“The Yakama Nation and irrigators were in court for 40 years,” Leita said. “Now they’re working together and getting things done.”

Humble beginnings

Leita’s father was 6 when he and his father immigrated to the United States from Italy.

His grandfather, who didn’t speak English, worked in a coal mine and took up shoe repair on the side. Later, he opened his own shoe repair shop.

His father delivered milk and moved to the Yakima Valley to work in construction, eventually opening his own construction company. Leita followed his father’s footsteps and opened a road construction business in Yakima. His company built 40th Avenue.

“So we came from very humble beginning,” Leita said. “This is a country of opportunity and no one is going to hand it to you. So I’m very grateful I’ve been given the opportunity to serve and do my best and I believe there will be other elected officials who will carry the ball very well.”

Reach Phil Ferolito at pferolito@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @philipferolito