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Spokane County lays off jail workers

Drop in inmates, dire budget situation blamed for cuts

Spokane County will lay off 57 jail employees next month to offset a big drop in the number of inmates.

The employees were notified Tuesday evening, and formal layoff notices were to be distributed today.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said his jail budget would have been $8 million in the hole by the end of year if county commissioners hadn’t approved the cuts.

The layoffs will include 30 corrections deputies at the Geiger Corrections Center – more than 40 percent of the deputies at the center. At the main Spokane County Jail, 14 of 140 deputies will lose their jobs.

The budget was based on the assumption that cities and the county general fund would pay about $120 a day to lock up an average of 930 inmates a day this year. But the actual average so far has been 768.

County officials couldn’t fully account for the reduction.

Knezovich said arrests are up 1 percent this year, but Prosecutor Steve Tucker said felony cases submitted by police and sheriff’s deputies are down 18 percent.

Knezovich attributed much of the reduced jail population to a program designed to speed up criminal cases. In that sense, he said, county officials were victims of their own success.

However, the “early case management” program faltered when budget cuts caused the prosecutor’s office to revert to its longtime practice of failing to charge many suspects within 72 hours.

Also, a companion community corrections program was scrapped because of budget cuts.

Commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to transfer $2 million from the general fund to the jail enterprise fund, to restore the community corrections program and offset some of the jail budget’s deficit, now projected to be as low as $800,000. The money had been intended for incarcerating inmates who are no longer expected.

Other workers facing the ax are two registered nurses, six cooks, five clerical and maintenance workers, and a nursing manager supplied by a contractor.

“Obviously, this is a pretty catastrophic event for those folks,” union spokesman Gordon Smith said.

County officials attempted to soften the blow by having the layoffs take effect June 16 – one day into a new pay period so employees could receive an extra month of medical and dental insurance.

In addition to the layoffs, two vacant positions will remain unfilled. Medical, transportation, kitchen and laundry services are to be consolidated.

The jail started the year with a loss of 44 positions, including 32 layoffs because of cuts throughout county government.

The action was the least drastic of three options county commissioners considered Tuesday afternoon. It preserves 326 beds at Geiger Corrections Center, which officials hope will keep the main jail from exceeding its capacity of 650 if the inmate population goes back up.

The plan projects an $800,000 loss to the jail budget by the end of the year even if revenue increases about $200,000 by doubling the number of federally paid inmates to 160.

Commissioners called for monthly reports that could lead to further action in three months.

Commissioner Todd Mielke agreed with the commission’s chairman, Mark Richard, that an incremental approach was needed, but warned Knezovich and his staff not to assume they won’t have to close the $800,000 gap.

Commissioner Bonnie Mager wanted more information right away on how the $2 million transfer from the general fund would be spent.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees today planned to invoke its right to bargain the effects the layoffs will have on remaining employees.

“What I’m having some trouble understanding is how this snuck up on the powers that be,” said Smith, staff representative for Local 492, which represents corrections deputies at the main jail.

He said the average daily inmate count at the jail and Geiger Corrections Center has been declining for nearly a year. If the county had acted sooner, reductions might have been phased in, Smith said.

Knezovich and Capt. John McGrath, the corrections commander, said they weren’t sure at first that the decline represented a trend instead of an aberration.

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