At least eight Eastern Washington counties are forging ahead with plans to open a 56-bed juvenile detention center in an abandoned state building at Medical Lake.
Although fewer than half of the beds are spoken for, proponents are confident that, “if we build it, they will come.”
“They” might be Spokane County.
Officials in Spokane County see a long-term need for more juvenile detention beds even though lack of prosecution has temporarily eased recent overcrowding at the existing detention center. Voters were told repeatedly last year that there is a critical shortage of detention cells.
Mutual distrust seems to be keeping Spokane County and the surrounding rural counties from embracing the idea that they need each other.
Spokane County Juvenile Court Director Tom Davis has shown little interest in plans to open a regional detention center in Martin Hall, an unused residential building on the Eastern State Hospital campus. He is openly skeptical that the rural leaders know what they’re doing.
Davis is urging Spokane County commissioners not to participate in Martin Hall on grounds that budget estimates are unrealistically low and that proponents may be cutting “dangerous corners.” He wants the state - which donated Martin Hall and is lending $4 million to renovate it - to give him more than $2 million to add cells to the Spokane County detention center.
Martin Hall proponents, in turn, suspect Davis is a spendthrift and are determined not to let Spokane County dominate their project. The regional detention center was conceived after the outlying counties were squeezed out of the crowded Spokane County detention center in recent years.
Spokane County has the only juvenile detention center in northeastern Washington.
Proponents note that Martin Hall, unlike Spokane County’s detention center, would meet American Correctional Association standards, including a limit on double-bunked cells. All but six of Martin Hall’s 44 cells would have only one occupant.
“We need Spokane County, and we would like to have them,” said Stevens County juvenile probation counselor Greg Rolstad. “But we will not be dictated to by them. They will not be lord of the manor again.”
Spokane County Commission Chairman Phil Harris said he is puzzled by all the doubts and distrust. He said Spokane County is “totally committed” to participation in the regional detention center.
Harris thinks a planned crackdown on gangs means Spokane County will need space at Martin Hall in addition to the beds it would gain from measures proposed for the county detention center.
“I want the other counties to know that the Board of County Commissioners is very sincere in its commitment to Martin Hall,” Harris said.
He said Spokane County considers itself a member of the coalition with a firm commitment to pay for five beds - even if Davis and the Superior Court judges who are his bosses choose not to use them. However, a June 15 letter from Harris created doubts among officials in other counties.
Harris said in the letter that Spokane County would pay $54.09 per day for each of the five beds if all 56 beds at Martin Hall were full. The county would pay more if empty beds drove up operating costs, he said.
Stevens County Commissioner Allan Mack, vice chairman of the Martin Hall coalition, said he’s not sure what to make of Harris’ letter.
“They’re going to have to take the same gamble as all the rest of us counties,” Mack said, citing Harris’ effort to set a price limit on Spokane County’s commitment.
Harris said Spokane County is making the same pledge as the other counties, and will not insist on the financial limit in his letter. He said Davis agreed to pay only $40 from his budget, but commissioners said, “We’re going to commit for the full cost and we’ll arm wrestle with Juvenile.”
Spokane County signed up for only five beds “because we don’t want to appear greedy,” Harris said. However, he said the county likely will ask to “buy” more beds later or at least rent them as space is available.
So far, Spokane County’s five beds are being counted among the coalition’s 26 commitments. So is a five-bed pledge by Douglas County, which also is considered shaky because of a complicated dispute in the judicial district shared by Douglas and Chelan counties.
Other counties that intend to join the coalition and guarantee to buy beds are: Stevens, seven beds; Whitman, 2 ; Pend Oreille, two; Lincoln, one-half; Ferry, one-half; Adams, two; and Asotin, two.
Based on those pledges, daily operating costs could push $120 per bed - $20 more than Spokane County had been charging outlying counties when space was available.
“It’s doable, but it’s expensive,” according to volunteer number cruncher Ray Tansy, a civic activist and retired Prudential insurance manager.
At capacity, Tansy said Martin Hall’s estimated daily operating cost would drop to $71 per bed.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = John Craig Staff writer Staff writer William Miller contributed to this story.