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SPECIAL REPORT: Are jails becoming a ball and chain?
Since incorporating in 1889, Buckley has had a way to deal with criminals.
Stashed in a city storage shed off Main Street is the city’s first jail, if you want to call it that: a large, heavy ball and chain – the kind you see in old cartoons – that was fastened to a prisoner’s leg to weigh him down if he tried to escape.
Since those early days, Buckley’s jail has grown with the city and Buckley has become a place where many of the surrounding towns house their criminals, including Bonney Lake and, to a lesser extent, Sumner.
In good years, the jail operated as a revenue-generator for the small city, which is restrained by a small commercial tax base and a lack of large housing development proposals.
But as revenue in surrounding cities declines and competitive detention enterprises are built, the jail in Buckley is beginning to become the ball and chain around the city’s ankle.
“The city of Buckley needs to desperately land a large guaranteed bed space contract to hit a break-even point or operate in the black,” Buckley Police Chief Jim Arsanto said.
Under state law, each city must find a way to deal with its prison population and the cities of east Pierce County and the Plateau all have their own strategies and reasons for housing prisoners.
Sumner and Bonney Lake have opted not to have a jail, instead contracting with surrounding cities to house their prisoners, while Buckley and Enumclaw each have jails.
For cities with jails, having a facility in town can mean convenience or revenue – or both – while the cities who choose to contract out for services do so to save money on a facility and staff and avoid the hassles of housing prisoners.
“We have other options,” Bonney Lake Police Chief Dana Powers said. “Buckley’s less than five minutes away. Puyallup is not very far away. Enumclaw is not very far away. Why add one more?”
Each of the cities in The Courier-Herald’s coverage area have different policies and reasons for housing prisoners.
Founded during Washington’s territorial period, Buckley has long housed its own prisoners. Today, the facility contains 28 beds and a solitary cell, as prescribed by law.
The Buckley jail, as we know it, came about in the late 1970s.
George Pecheos was police chief in Buckley at the time and the city received a federal grant to remodel its jail, a project that allowed the city to land a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to house prisoners.
The rebuilt facility opened in June 1978.
According to Arsanto, former Police Chief Arthur “Buster” McGehee aggressively sought contracts from surrounding municipalities. Arsanto presently oversees 17 contracts, split into two types: guaranteed beds and on-call beds. Guaranteed contracts hold a specific number of beds for a city or organization while on-call beds are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
The current cost for a night in the Buckley Jail is $57 per prisoner.
Through the years, the Buckley jail grew into a profitable enterprise for the city, making enough money to cover its expenses, as well as generate additional revenues primarily put back into the police department, making housing prisoners an easy choice for city officials.
“The city has actually made money,” City Administrator Dave Schmidt said. “In actuality, what the jail has done is help support public safety.”
The city, of course, houses its prisoners in-house. But according to Arsanto, Buckley uses only four beds per night, on average, leaving 24 beds open to generate revenue through contracts.
Through this year, and after accounting for the cost of the money saved in contracts to house Buckley’s criminals – estimated to be about $90,000 per year, according to Schmidt – the jail’s combined revenue and savings to the city was consistently a money-maker, with the exception of 2004. At its peak, the jail brought in a profit of $177,525 in 2001, though most years the total fell below $100,000.
“Buckley jails predominantly ran full,” Arsanto said.
In addition to the source of revenue, Schmidt said the jail is a fixture in town and something of a source of pride.
“It’s a part of the community,” Schmidt said. “It has some nostalgic value to the community.”
Between the money and the pride, keeping a jail in town just made sense for Buckley.
Down the road in Bonney Lake, the city made the opposite decision: it was better to contract out criminals than attempt to take care of them in-house.
“We’re a transport city,” Powers said, adding that while Buckley is the city’s first choice, Bonney Lake also contracts with Puyallup, Fife and Enumclaw.
“We’ve never had a jail here,” Powers said. “It’s a lot of work and you get a lot of pushback from the community.”
Powers said the costs and headaches of a facility and staff to maintain it make it easier to drive the 10 miles to Buckley or one of the other jails.
“At this time we don’t have the need,” she said. “We have options.”
After apprehending a criminal for a charge like domestic violence assault, who by law has to be taken to jail, Bonney Lake police officers check with local facilities to see what space is available, starting with the closest and cheapest, just 10 minutes up state Route 410.
“We absolutely try Buckley first,” Powers said. “It’s closest. We want to drop them and go.”
In 2010, Bonney Lake spent $88,597 to house criminals, with $74,898 of it going to Buckley, followed by $5,720 to Puyallup, $3,025 to Enumclaw and $900 to Fife.
Bonney Lake also spent $4,054 to house criminals at Pierce County, which Powers said handles all of the city’s felony arrests.
Though she admits a jail could be a money-maker for Bonney Lake, Powers said she did not think a jail was necessary because of the contracts and cooperation with other cities, much as it does for its SWAT team and Crime Response Unit.
“It’s not using our resources in a positive way,” Powers said.
Powers also said transporting prisoners to Buckley allows Bonney Lake police to get back to patrolling the city faster. Bonney Lake has also been using a more cite-and-release model, which gets officers back on the street quicker and saves the city money on bed fees.
“It’s typically a pretty quick turnaround,” she said, adding “I know the officers aren’t thinking about the dollars and cents.”
In addition, Powers said City Judge Ron Heslop has been offering many more offenders the option of home monitoring, a charge passed on to the person being monitored instead of the city’s general fund.
“That’s the city of Bonney Lake’s jail, basically,” she said.
The increase in home monitoring and a developing reputation that “you don’t drive fast in Bonney Lake” is contributing to decrease the number of beds Bonney Lake is using at various facilities.
Things are different, however, in Enumclaw, where it is the use of resources that prompts the city to maintain its facility.
According to Enumclaw Police Lt. Bob Huebler, it is easier for police to book a criminal into their own facility and be done with it than have to transport them somewhere, taking an officer off the street during that time.
“We’re basically a self-contained area,” Huebler said.
Huebler said if there was no jail in Enumclaw, officers may have to spend up to two hours at a time transporting criminals to other cities in King County, like the Regional Justice Center in Kent.
Huebler said transporting a criminal to another jail means one less officer on the beat in Enumclaw, making it a safety concern, as well as a cost issue.
However, the city of Enumclaw’s 25-bed jail facility is still a revenue generator for the city, providing more than $211,000 to the city in 2009. The mayor’s 2012 preliminary budget anticipated revenue of approximately $250,000 during 2011 and it is expected to grow again in 2012 due to a new contract being negotiated with the city of Maple Valley.
City administrator Mike Thomas said the money collected from contracts helps offset the cost for the city of keeping the facility open, estimated at $600,000.
“It makes us money, but it’s not a profit center,” he said.
Thomas said the revenue offsets and the transport time are two major reasons Enumclaw maintains a facility, with the third being the ability to control the costs of housing prisoners.
“Having our own jail, we control our own destiny on the cost,” Thomas said.
For the city of Sumner, the decision to not include a jail facility in the city came more than 10 years ago, when the city remodeled City Hall, according to Communications Director Carmen Palmer.
Palmer said the decision was based on cost and other cities that could provide the service.
Sumner contracts with Buckley, Fife, Pierce County and Puyallup, which is its primary facility.
“Our police usually use the Puyallup jail because it is so close, making transport time very short,” Palmer said in an e-mail.
Palmer said court commits – prisoners ordered to serve time by a judge – tend to go to Buckley instead, due to the cheaper cost.
According to Palmer, in 2010, Sumner booked 327 individuals into various jails for a total of 2,101 days. The total cost was $134,630, plus $1,200 in associated medical costs for those incarcerated.
But like Bonney Lake, Sumner’s city judge Tim Jenkins has been using more electronic home monitoring, both to save money and because it keeps the convicted person productive in society.
“This is a good option for people who have a better chance of learning from their mistakes if they can continue working rather than sitting in jail and losing their job, for example,” Palmer said.
In 2010, 51 individuals served a total of 839 days with in-home monitoring at a cost to the city of $4,316.
Palmer reiterated that there are many factors other than cost, including transport time and the best option to prevent someone from committing more crimes in the future.
“The one thing that is not on Sumner’s list for consideration is what’s ‘easy,’” she said. “Like anything, our goal when making service evaluations is ‘how do we provide the same or better service to our citizens for the same or less money?’”
BECOMING A BALL AND CHAIN
Back in Buckley, however, the city’s revenue-generating jail facility is not quite the cash cow it used to be, prompting city officials to have to rethink their options.
Beginning last year with the opening of the new South Correctional Entity jail facility in Des Moines, several guaranteed contracts began to disappear from Buckley.
The U.S. Marshal and the cities of Covington and Federal Way have all dropped their contracts with Buckley in favor of the new facility that while more expensive than coming to the Plateau, saves a trip to the Plateau.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord also recently canceled a contract with Buckley.
The city still has its contracts with other cities, but those are primarily on-call beds and not necessarily a consistent source of income.
“That’s not something you can count on as a revenue stream,” Schmidt said.
The lack of guaranteed bed contracts is wearing on the tiny city’s budget as something it once counted on as a revenue source is becoming an expense the city is struggling to maintain.
Between the rising costs of providing service and coverage in the facility and the falling revenues, Buckley is now losing money and the city is subsidizing the jail from its general fund.
“It costs us over $500,000 to maintain our 29-bed jail on an annual basis,” Schmidt said.
Buckley separates its jail into three pods, all of which use community space to house multiple people in single rooms. The only single-use cell is the solitary facility. Inside, food is prepared by inmates in the “trustee tank,” which houses primarily court commits and work release prisoners. Inmates also do the facility’s laundry.
In 2011, jail expenses totaled approximately $479,000 and are expected to climb to $529,000. Schmidt said that pays for five full- and part-time staffers who work with the city’s dispatchers to provide full coverage at the jail.
“That gives us 24-hour coverage, seven days a week,” Schmidt said.
But with the loss of contracts and the increase in catch-and-release from contract cities, the jail is only projected to make $416,500 in 2012. The total loss from Federal Way and Covington pulling its contracts is expected to be about $186,000.
Meanwhile, salaries and benefit costs continue to rise.
“Liability and medical will just kill you,” Arsanto said.
According to Schmidt, if January’s numbers are off by a few percentage points, the city may have to consider shutting down the jail in order to save its general fund.
“We might need to pull the plug, but that will be the call of the council,” he said, adding, “Every month delay is a loss to the general fund.”
The city maintains many of its contracts based on its low fee and Buckley officials said increasing the cost to other cities may lead them to simply transport elsewhere, instead of taking the time to drive to east Pierce County.
“It’s easy to say ‘raise your price,’ but that’s not the answer here,” Arsanto said.
“The guys have done an excellent job running that facility, it’s just getting priced out,” Schmidt said.
Aside from Buckley, however, leaders in other Plateau and east Pierce cities remain pleased with their choices in how to house prisoners, though all remain open to changes if need be.
Powers, for example, said she was “very comfortable” in how Bonney Lake deals with prisoners.
“If we didn’t have options, I wouldn’t be comfortable,” she said, adding, “Until there’s a need, I don’t see us pushing in that direction.”
In Enumclaw, Thomas said the council discussed the jail as part of the 2011 budget, but did not discuss it for 2012, deciding the additional revenue was too important.
“For us, it makes sense to have our own jail,” he said.
But for Buckley, the reason for having their own jail may be on the wane as the gap between expenditures and revenues continues to increase. Something will have to be done, even if it means re-evaluating century-old facilities, a decision that could reverberate through the entire region.
And no sense of history, community or contracts with other cities can ever replace the bottom line.
“It’s an outstanding facility,” Schmidt said. “It’s just dollars and cents.”
By Brian Beckley