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State prisoners being evicted from county jail

The Spokane County Jail will quit housing state prisoners next month in a dispute over payment.

State officials refuse to pay the new $125-a-day rate the county charges Spokane and other cities to jail a prisoner – or even the $120.95 deal they were offered.

It remains to be seen whether the state will pay a $489,000 bill for the difference between the going rate and the $68 the state has continued paying since its contract expired June 30.

Only the federal government pays less than $125 a day, but Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said the $89 federal rate reflects the fact that the U.S. government pays transportation and medical costs for the 70 or so prisoners it typically keeps in the county jail.

“Inmate medical is an extreme cost,” Knezovich said.

Knezovich said there has been no increase in the state rate since a small “bump” in 2008 after several years without change.

He said the state paid about $1.2 million last year, at $68 a bed, to house alleged probation violators who are waiting for court hearings.

State and county officials say the jail currently houses 10 to 15 state prisoners a day on average.

The state Department of Corrections contract expired June 30, but the county continued taking state prisoners while the parties tried to negotiate a new agreement. A plan to evict state prisoners on Dec. 31 was set aside as talks continued.

“Those negotiations have pretty much gone nowhere,” Knezovich said. “It just got to the point that Spokane could no longer subsidize the state’s housing needs. … We need to fill those beds with inmates that are going to pay the rate.”

Spokane County’s jail charge is “just far outside what we’re paying at other jurisdictions,” said state Prisons Director Bernie Warner. “I would say that a majority of our contracts are somewhere between $60 and $80 a day.”

Warner said the state’s male prisoners will be housed at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, but the prison can’t take women. He said his staff is shopping for a jail to take the small number of female prisoners.

“I think we’re talking about one or two at any given time,” Warner said. “Our staff has said there are some other jurisdictions that are interested.”

Knezovich said he also is willing to house the women, but the state is “going to have to pay a more reasonable amount.”

Warner said the Legislature is considering placing a cap on the amount the Department of Corrections is allowed to pay for jail service. However, he said that probably would serve only to demonstrate that Spokane County’s fee is “far outside the resources that we have.”

The Legislature could force counties to accept state prisoners on whatever terms it wishes, but “we have not gone down that path,” Warner said.

Instead, he said, “We’re still at the table with the county, and I think we have a shared interest in making sure that whatever we do is a good public safety decision.”

Knezovich said he will continue to book state prisoners with the understanding that corrections officials must pick them up immediately.

Warner said he hopes “immediately” means within 24 hours.

As to the county’s $489,000 bill, “we’re having our folks look at it,” Warner said. “I don’t think we’ve had it long enough to tell you whether we agree with the amount.”

Warner said he hadn’t yet received legal advice on whether the bill is collectible in the absence of a formal agreement.

The state was on notice that the county expected more money, but county officials knew the state refused to pay the increase.

“We continued to take their inmates on good faith that they would come to the table and negotiate this thing out, but nothing was ever worked out,” Knezovich said.

Exasperated, he said he doesn’t really care about collecting the alleged delinquency. But county commissioners do.

“They’re very interested in that,” Knezovich said.

Commissioners must pay much of the sheriff’s budget from their withered general fund.

The amount in question is enough to pay four deputies for a year.