The City of Federal Way announced on Sept. 4 it would end its 11-year-old partnership in the seven-city-owned South Correctional Entity Regional jail in Des Moines.
Unhappy news to the mayors and city managers of the remaining founding partner cities of Auburn, Burien, SeaTac, Tukwila, Des Moines and Renton. Like her peers, Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus received a call from Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell before that meeting, announcing his intention to get council approval for the withdrawal.
Alongside the other founding cities, Federal Way entered into the partnership agreement in 2007 to help cut the rising costs of housing misdemeanants. The justification for leaving SCORE, according to Ferrell and to a police report Police Chief Andy Hwang read to the Federal Way City Council Sept. 4, is that the city is paying $262 every day to keep someone in custody, nearly $6.5 million annually, an expenditure it can no longer sustain.
On Sept. 14, Tukwila Mayor Allan Ekberg, administrative board chairman of SCORE, expressed his dismay in a letter to Ferrell, who is the current SCORE vice chair. In the letter, Ekberg claimed that city leaders had received incorrect financial information in that police report.
“As the current chair of the facility, I would like to state how disappointed I and the other member cities were to receive Federal Way’s Sept. 5 notice to withdraw and terminate its role as an equal partner in this regional facility,” Ekberg wrote. “With your notice to withdraw, we will lose your valuable input and participation in our continual effort to create the most cost effective and efficient regional jail facility.”
As the Federal Way Mirror related on Sept. 7, according to the report, the city and its police department had an annual jail budget of just above $2 million in 2012. Today, according to the report, that annual budget is nearly $6.5 million, a figure Hwang said includes nearly $1 million of capital contribution costs for the jail’s construction,
“By withdrawing from SCORE and (utilizing) other jail facilities, the projected annual jail expenditures will be $4,330,300,” Hwang said, reading from the staff report. “This could potentially save the city $2.1 million a year, with the city instead utilizing locations like King County Jail for $189 per bed daily, Nisqually Jail at $95 per bed daily and the Yakima Jail at $58 per bed daily.”
Today, the City of Federal Way pays SCORE $262 per bed daily, which Ferrell said is more expensive than hosting prisoners at the Courtyard Marriott, according to the Federal Way Mirror.
Ekberg noted that Federal Way helped create the financial and operational policies that have governed SCORE since its start and has always participated in setting rates, operational procedures, and approved all budgets prior to this year’s current city-related financial constraints.
And while Ekberg said he respects the right of all of SCORE’s member cities to make their own decisions on how best to serve their communities and provide effective jail service, he claimed the report misinformed Federal Way’s leaders.
For example, Ekberg said, the actual SCORE jail adopted budget for Federal Way in 2019 is nearly $500,000 less than what was presented.
In addition, he said, the total budget included payment of all debt service; however, in Federal Way’s case, Ekberg claimed, the $935,000 annual debt service is not paid by Federal Way but is offset by SCORE-received contract revenues.
“If this had been mentioned to the City Council, it would have shown the perceived savings would be significantly less. However, I look forward to working together to ensure all the facts are presented, they are shown in a transparent manner, and to ensure the best value for Federal Way, as well as SCORE, as you make future decisions,” Ekberg wrote.
In a conversation with the Auburn Reporter on Friday afternoon, Farrell said Ekberg’s numbers were off.
“They claim that we did not properly identify that we were expecting nearly $500,000 in savings in 2019. The second point they make is that we did not make it clear, or did not account for, the fact SCORE pays our debt service now,” Ferrell said.
“Both of those claims are absolutely false. We said it repeatedly, we have it down to the minute and second in the presentation when we said it. I made it clear at (a recent) SCORE Board meeting about the changing of the formula in 2019 for exactly this reason: we are expecting a $500,000 savings in 2019. I made that clear, and I made that clear at previous City Council meetings.
“We also made clear to the council and during the presentation made by Police Chief Hwang that SCORE has made a practice of paying our debt service. The point made specifically on this topic was that after we left SCORE, our savings would be approximately $2 million per year even after we paid this debt service of $935,000,” Ferrell said.
“I am not sure how they got those two facts so wrong, but I can tell you that it was jaw dropping to read the story (in the Auburn Reporter) and to see that those claims are still being made,” Farrell said.
Ekberg invited Ferrell to meet and consider solutions that can serve all the members, in hopes that the City of Federal Way will reconsider its direction.
Ferrell said Federal Way has made it clear – the City is open to suggestions.
“We’ve made it clear if they can come up with some ideas on how to fix this, we’re open to discussion. … My opinion is that what they need to do is push the restart button. We’ve got owners here, and the question is, how do we make them whole? It may mean a drastic reduction in staff, or a drastic reshuffling of how the place operates. But $262 a day, that’s not tenable, it’s not right,” Ferrell said.
Backus bridled at some of the comments made at the Sept. 4 Federal Way City Council meeting.
“The mayor talked about Auburn and Renton, ‘making a race to the bottom’ to reduce their average daily populations at the jail,” Backus said. “The thing is, the cities have absolutely no control over that average daily population; that has to do with judges and their sentencing practices. The only thing cities have control over, and which Auburn has control over at this point, is their bookings.”
Ferrell argued that Auburn does indeed have control over its average daily population, and it exercised such control in 2012, when, to save money, it switched from a municipal court system to a district court system, the latter known to exercise more lenient sentencing practices. The result was a sharp decrease in the average number of misdemeanants Auburn was sending to the SCORE jail, and along with that, the reduction in expenditures city leaders had hoped for.
“They went from an ADP around 100 down to 60, then into the 50s, and even lower than that. … So, at some point, I think that the formula is broken, I think SCORE is broken, and that’s why we’ve said to our partners in SCORE, ‘Hey, if you can come up with a different formula, we’re all ears.’ As for Federal Way, we can’t keep doing this, we can’t spend $6.5 million a year in jail costs.It’s just crazy.”
As Backus noted, in or out, Federal Way will still have to find a way to deal with its misdemeanants, and to continue to pay its part of 20-plus years of the debt service on the jail’s construction, an obligation that city has acknowledged.
Backus said the SCORE board is already looking at efficiencies, how it can provide excellent service and excellent value to the member cities and to other cities and entities with which it contracts.
“We also contracted with the Department of Corrections (DOC). At any typical time, they take up about half of the bed space available. The jail’s new executive director, who spent the last 20 years with the DOC and has connections there, is already looking at opportunities to increase what we are receiving from the DOC, especially medical, because right now, we are receiving very little. They contract at the state-approved rate of $80 or $85 a day, but there’s medical available for inmates.”
So, a big hit to the partner cities? Not necessarily, Backus said.
“We will be looking at ways to offset what they may be leaving. There are opportunities to contract with more cities. We will look at whether we need to shut a wing of the jail down, or whether we use the space Federal Way was using to bring in additional DOC, perhaps females,” Backus said.
Renton Mayor Denis Law was out of state this week and unavailable for comment.