Washington County Jail Remains Closed after Voters Reject Tax Hike
Officials in Yakima County, Washington say a deal struck with the city of Fife, near Tacoma, to house the city’s prisoners will help make up for lost income from an empty county jail that failed to win the support of voters in a 2012 tax referendum.
Yakima County Department of Corrections director Ed Campbell said he hopes the contract to house prisoners from Fife will be the first of many. He noted the contract, announced in April 2013, should generate $700,000 in annual revenue.
“The market is certainly different,” he said. “It’s very competitive, very tough, and there’s very little need for beds compared to what it used to be so we continue to try to work towards getting contracts.”
The city of Fife will send low-risk prisoners to Yakima County’s main jail, according to County Commissioner Mike Leita. “We have certainty from them that these will be the lowest level of, best type of inmates if you will, therefore they afforded a very good rate.”
The scramble for contracts for prisoners from other jurisdictions followed the August 2012 rejection by Yakima County residents of a proposed one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax hike. The measure was rejected by more than 53% of voters.
County commissioners had requested the tax increase to cover $3 million in annual debt payments on three bond issues, including one from 2002 to build Yakima’s newest jail on Pacific Avenue. The 288-bed jail was built specifically to generate revenue, with local officials counting on other cities and counties to house their prisoners at the facility. But those other jurisdictions withdrew their prisoners in 2010, having found alternatives to incarceration to cut costs.
As a result, Campbell closed the Pacific Avenue jail, laid off employees and reduced expenses for prisoner healthcare and food at the main jail, slashing his budget by more than $12 million. The Pacific Avenue jail has remained closed since 2011; around $17 million is still owed on its construction costs.
The other two outstanding jail bonds were for security upgrades at Yakima’s main 950-bed downtown jail and the remodeling more than a decade ago of a former bowling alley to be used as a minimum-security facility.
One Yakima County official blamed the economy for the rejection of the sales tax increase.
“In these difficult times, it is asking a lot of the taxpayers to willingly increase their taxes,” said County Commissioner Rand Elliott. “They have expressed themselves and we will move on to our next option.”
The contract with Fife means about three dozen beds at Yakima County’s main jail should be filled, which will make up a small amount of the revenue lost when the Pacific Avenue jail closed. County officials said they also planned to transfer $2.8 million from the county’s road fund to the general fund to cover the budget shortfall.
In the meantime, talks began in early 2014 between Yakima County and the State of Washington, which needs to find beds for around 300 minimum- and medium-security prisoners. Housing those prisoners will cost about $7 million per year, and the legislature passed a bill in 2013 that allows state prisoners to be held in county jails in the wake of budget cuts that led to the closure of three prisons.
In April 2014, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported that the legislature had approved a one year, $1.5 million contract to house 75 female state prisoners in Yakima County, which may lead to the reopening of the Pacific Avenue jail.
“We’re looking at investigating every opportunity to house inmates at the lowest possible rate,” said state Rep. Charles Ross. “With Yakima sitting there with an empty facility, [it is] an attractive place for the state.”
Due to the state contract and renewed interest by other cities and counties to house their prisoners in Yakima County, Campbell said he was “cautiously optimistic” the Pacific Avenue jail would reopen by the end of 2014.
Sources: Yakima Herald-Republic, www.kimatv.com, Seattle Times
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