Cosi mayor presses for movement on jail costs contract

Grays Harbor Sheriff Mike Whelan has been working on a new contract for jail services the county provides to municipalities and hoped to have it in place by the time he retires at the end of the week, but that’s not going to happen, Whelan said on Tuesday. The current contract is set to expire on Oct. 25.

That puts the entire situation in the lap of his likely successor, Undersheriff Rick Scott, as well as the county commissioners, who are responsible for approving the contract.

Several police chiefs and mayors have vocally opposed a potential new contract because the county wants to shift more medical costs to the municipalities. They’ve taken their opposition to county commission meetings and other public settings.

Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines attended the commissioners’ morning meeting on Monday to ask why there hasn’t been any movement on proposed revisions to the contract. Raines said it’s been five weeks since a small group of delegated city officials met with the Sheriff, Commissioner Terry Willis and Prosecutor Stew Menefee to hash out the details of the contract. They were supposed to meet again a couple weeks ago, but the contract was not yet done and the meeting had to be canceled.

“The contract will expire and we potentially don’t have any jail services, theoretically, at the end of October,” Raines told the commissioners. “My issue isn’t with the technical merit of the jail contract, it’s with the timeliness. …

“I’m speaking as one of the mayors of the group,” Raines added. “We feel we have negotiated in good faith and the county has not done so in return. I’ll go type the thing myself and make the changes, but I want to know if the commissioners have agreed to those changes as we discussed.”

County Commissioner Terry Willis said she hasn’t briefed her fellow commissioners because she hasn’t seen the revised contract herself. She said there were technical glitches in getting the contract drafted along with questions as to what should be in it before going back to the mayors.

“Are you waiting on anything from the mayors?” Raines said. “Because our time is ticking.”

“We’re not waiting on anything from the mayors,” Willis said. “If you’ll work with me on this, I will contact Stew and the Sheriff’s Office and get this out in an appropriate manner.”

Raines said the cities are more than willing to agree to a $5 increase to what the county charges cities to house prisoners on a daily basis. That would raise the cost from $65 to $70, the first such increase in probably two decades, Whelan said, noting the true cost of housing a prisoner exceeds $90 per day.

Raines said the cities are willing to approve an annual cost of living adjustment to the contract to have annual increases to the rate. There remains a dispute over whether cities should be responsible for medical costs 0f prisoners arrested for felonies within city limits. That’s a new fee the county has never charged before and Raines said it’s an issue the cities want to negotiate separately.

Raines said the two issues both parties agreed on were to be placed in a new contract and distributed to the cities weeks ago. But that didn’t happen.

“I would like the contract by Friday morning at 10 a.m.,” Raines told the commissioners. “I am giving you a deadline because I think other departments need a deadline. Five weeks we met on this, Terry. This Thursday will be five weeks since we met. And I think that’s ample time.”

Sheriff Whelan said he had met with Undersheriff Scott and Menefee on Tuesday to go over the possible changes and hoped to get the new contract out as soon as possible.

“There was more to the contract revisions that just fees and medical costs,” Whelan said. “The old contract was created decades ago. There are a lot of changes to state law since then that needed to be addressed, just from a liability standpoint, just from the standpoint of cleaning up language in regard to responsibilities for certain actions, those sorts of things. When we proposed that contract, the cities didn’t like it. They wanted to keep the old contract. To be honest, I wasn’t wild about that idea.”

The shorter contract that was just a couple of pages long “was more loosey goosey,” the sheriff said. “It’s open too much to interpretation and I wanted to leave things not open to interpretation in the new contract. We all have responsibilities and it’s nice to know what all of our responsibilities are.” Whelan said he’s fine now with using the old contract as a base, but there are still changes that need to be done.

Sheriff Whelan said that in 2011, the county spent $187,658 on prisoners for medical costs, hospital bills and specialty providers. Of that, Whelan said probably about $80,000 would likely be the share of the cities in the new system. Those costs could be more if the county asks the cities to share in the $65,000 his office pays for Dr. Ki Shin to provide medical care within the jail.

That may not sound like a lot compared to his office’s $8.99 million operating budget. But, Whelan says, those costs could escalate in years to come and the county needs to have a system in place to share those costs with the cities today.

“It costs us $2.5 million to run the county jail every year and we’re running with very minimum staffing so if I’m going to put money in the county jail, it really needs to be in uniform corrections officers, not more medical costs,” Whelan said.