Task force recommends not opening county new jail

YAKIMA - Yakima County commissioners have a $28 million white elephant sitting on their chests as a task force reviewed the new county justice center and recommended the facility slated to have the first phase completed next month not be opened.

With the county spending more than $12 million of a $31.5 million budget before the first spade of dirt was turned, the task force's recommendation is based on the inevitability that the county will lose even more money if the facility is opened to house prisoners. County Commissioner Mike Leita said the task force has come to the decision that the Justice Center, which has been in the works since 1999, should not open under existing circumstances.

The Jail Options Task force made its recommendations Thursday. Yakima County commissioners were presented the initial report Thursday, but will be formally addressed at the Yakima County commissioners meeting Tuesday, May 3.

The task force found that to open the jail would cost more than the county first anticipated. The jail, which at one time the county looked at building in the Lower Valley, was to be a money-making endeavor to offset some of the county's criminal justice costs. The county planned to sell bed space and pay off the facility and then in the future use the building for county jail needs.

Next month the first phase of the facility is expected to be completed, but Leita said in a report completed by the panel, that "...it has failed to meet expectations.

"Several false starts, delays and project changes have combined with rising construction costs to dramatically increase the cost of the building the Justice Center," said Leita. "As a result, only one of the three planned buildings has been erected and it will house just one-half of the number of inmates originally planned."

Leita said rising costs have cut into the projected revenue originally figured into the cost because only 288 beds will be available, instead of the planned 576.

Running a variety of scenarios, Leita said the task force found that if the jail opens January 2007 and reaches full capacity that year the jail would be operating at a loss of $2.5 million by January 2011.

If the facility were to open in 2006 and be full by 2007 the county would see a loss of $3.4 million. Leita said the jail wouldn't be able to recoup the annual $2.5 million debt service payment and mothballing costs. Early estimates put the break-even point in 2007, but that no longer is a possibility, said Leita.

The task force identified two points in the jail development process that led to the facility being unsustainable.

Leita said the two fatal flaws were when the jail went from a concentrated, full-level security facility to an open-campus, low security project and when the commissioners continued the project despite $12 million in spending and nothing to show for it.

The task force recommended that before the jail is opened contracts with other jurisdictions that guarantee a revenue stream of 272 inmates paying a minimum of $58 per bed be signed. Also recommended is that a $2.5 million reserve fund be put into place to offset expected operational losses and that an immediate plan be put into place that would recruit, train and hire department of corrections officers.

Leita said there should also be an effort to seek alternative non-operational revenue solutions, such as leasing or selling the facility.

Leita said the state was recently looking to build a new facility at a substantially higher cost than the justice center and had the jail been a higher security facility they may have looked to Yakima County to fill that need.

The task force also suggested that commissioners look at relocating the downtown jails and the restitution center located in Union Gap within the new Justice Center complex.

After the presentation by Leita, Stan Martinkus, a citizen member of the task force, said "This is probably the most disheartening experience for me as we as a county have spent $21 million on something we're not going to put into place."

But it's not all doom and gloom in regards to the jail. Department of Corrections Director Steve Robertson said there is a possibility that the facility can be used to take special pressures off the currently county jail located in downtown Yakima.

"We could move the entire commissary out of our building and use that space for something else," said Robertson.

The new Justice Center also has office space and state-of-the-art laundry and kitchen facilities.

"It has space," said Robertson. "Just because we're not running a corrections operation there, it doesn't mean we can't use the space."

Task force citizen member Mike Smith added that today it doesn't make sense to operate the facility, unless bed rates go up, but down the road that may change.

"I believe there will come a time where the Justice Center will be a key facility," said Smith.

He said looking at the condition of the current jail the Justice Center will be the answer to the county's jail needs.

"The timing just wasn't right," he added.


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