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Commissioners faced with some tough decisions concerning new justice center

YAKIMA - The Yakima County commissioners have several important decisions to make in the next two weeks. In that amount of time commissioners are expected to make a decision as to whether they will allow a shakedown or test run of the newly completed justice center and they will decide if they will move forward with testing the market to see if there are jurisdictions that would be interested in renting beds at the new facility.

Thursday afternoon, Yakima County commissioners listened and asked questions as Yakima County Administrator Doug Cochran and Department of Corrections Director Steve Robertson made a presentation on some of the options the county has when looking at the new jail facility.

Last April, members of the Jail Options Task Force recommended that the Justice Center not be opened due to revenue projections that show the facility will not be able to sustain itself. At the time, the task force found that if the jail opened in January 2007 and reached full capacity that year the jail would still be operating at a loss of $2.5 million by January 2011.

However, Robertson suggested yesterday that commissioners look at opening the facility long enough to allow for a shakedown. He explained that this would involve moving members of the county's existing jail facility to the justice center to ensure that the building is fully operational.

"(We need to) get people in there," Robertson said.

He explained that if the county knows that the jail facility is fully operational it will make getting it easier to get on-line in the future and possibly make it easier to rent beds in the 288-bed facility further down the road.

Commissioner Mike Leita added that Jake Jundt, who oversaw the construction of the justice center, also felt that a shakedown was important to the facility.

Leita said that it's not possible to know for sure that the facility can handle inmates by just walking through the building turning faucets off and on.

Cochran added that Robertson is ready to conduct a shakedown, which would last a maximum of six months, whenever the commissioners give him the nod.

"I think we need to do the shakedown," said Commissioner Ron Gamache. "It's a no-brainer."

Commissioners then turned their attention to testing the market, and finding out if there are other jurisdictions that would be interested in renting beds in the new facility.

Cochran told commissioners that the county's contract with David Dow and Associates, which had been conducting market research for the jail facility, had just ended. He added that the commissioners will have to decide whether or not that is a service they wish to continue.

The county had been planning on renting the beds in the facility for $58 per bed. Leita said before the commissioners start making assumptions as to whether or not other jurisdictions will pay that amount or be interested in renting space in the justice center, someone will have to go out and test the market.

"My basic thought is we really need to go out and test the market place and see if we can sell 288 beds at $58 each," Leita said.

Cochran said if the county wants to go ahead with trying to rent a significant amount of beds at the facility someone will have to be hired to tap into the market on the west side of the state.

But even if the commissioners decide to move forward with hiring someone to test the market for jail beds, the county will still have to make the decision as to whether or not it wants to rent beds in the justice center. Leita noted that even if they are able to rent all of the beds the justice center will still be operating at a loss.

"But it would minimize your loss," Cochran said.

County commissioners agreed Thursday that they will meet again in two weeks to make a decision as to whether they will push forward with finding someone to do market research on the possibility of renting out the beds in the justice center, as well as decide if they will allow a shakedown of the new facility.

"Right now, as of today, the justice center is closed and it will remain closed," Leita stressed.

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