The city of Spokane wants to spend less money housing low-risk inmates and will begin exploring cheaper options, including the possibility of creating its own minimum-security lockup rather than relying on the county jail.
The idea, which could include using a private jail contractor, caused tension this week with county leaders concerned that a city jail could torpedo a four-year regional process aimed at building a new countywide lockup and putting greater emphasis on rehabilitation. The county currently charges daily incarceration fees for housing inmates from the cities.
Despite that tension, Spokane Mayor Mary Verner and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich pledged at a news conference Thursday afternoon to maintain a partnership on jail issues.
“It’s one of multiple options and no decisions have been made, and those decisions, if and when they are made, will be made with our partners,” Verner said of a city jail in an interview after the news conference.
Knezovich said the county will move forward with plans to select a site for a new jail to replace the aging Geiger Corrections Center. He hopes a proposal can be ready for the ballot in about a year. If the city starts a misdemeanor lockup, Knezovich said the county’s plans would be re-evaluated.
The sheriff said he stood with the mayor Thursday because continuing to work with the city is the only way to salvage a regional approach.
He added that it’s likely the city will discover that one jail system is cheaper than two.
“I truly believe that we as a community cannot survive alone anymore” Knezovich said. “Our budgets just don’t allow that.”
Dorothy Webster, Spokane’s general administration director, said the city will examine the possibility of opening a low-security jail that could be owned by the city, county or a company that would contract with the city.
“The city is just exploring its options, not trying to be competitive or obstinate,” Webster said. “We owe it to our citizens to explore every option we can in order to deliver cost-effective services.”
Verner called the city’s partnership with the county “fully intact.”
“I have requested meetings with the county commissioners and the sheriff because we want to see what their reaction is to this concept,” Verner said in an interview Wednesday. “It seems to have merit from our point of view. There could be cost efficiencies and process efficiencies.”
Spokane County operates the downtown jail and Geiger, a former Army barracks on the West Plains that houses low- and medium-security inmates.
Disputes between the city and county about the cost of housing inmates are long-standing, and the county’s jail rates have often irritated city administrators.
In less than five years, the county has tripled the cost it charges cities for housing inmates at Geiger.
In 2006, county leaders threatened to release city of Spokane inmates from Geiger because the city was refusing to pay its full bill. That year, the county increased its cost of housing Geiger inmates from $41 a day in 2005 to $60 a day in 2006. At the time, the county charged $78 a day to house inmates in the downtown jail.
This year, the county is charging cities $121 a day to house inmates at Geiger and at the jail.
Webster said a misdemeanor jail could cut costs, in part, because guards may not need to be commissioned officers, who typically earn higher wages and benefits.
Meanwhile, Knezovich said, negotiations between the city and county are on track to restart a corrections program aimed at reducing the jail population and keeping offenders from committing new crimes with treatment and job assistance. The county cut the program last year because of budget cuts and hopes the city will contribute resources to help restart it.
Knezovich said he hopes the program is running again by July 1.