Snohomish County jail thrives under sheriff’s management

EVERETT — When Snohomish County last year moved supervision of its jail from the county executive’s office to the sheriff’s office, not everybody was convinced the change would help morale or save taxpayers’ money.

Initial feedback points to some dramatic improvements during the past year, including huge drops in mandatory overtime, sick leave and worker grievances.

Undersheriff Tom Davis said the sheriff’s office has focused on building relationships with corrections bureau employees and law-enforcement agencies who pay to house inmates in the jail.

“If we focus on the relationships, other efficiencies will start to fall into place,” Davis said. “We’re never done, but we’re very pleased with where we are after 12 months. We still have a lot to accomplish.”

The jail has an annual budget of about $39 million and employs 341 people. It locked up about 25,500 inmates last year from 19 Snohomish County municipalities, the state and other outside agencies. In January, it had an average daily population of 1,161.

Councilman Mike Cooper in September 2008 proposed taking the Corrections Department away from County Executive Aaron Reardon’s office, citing considerable cost overruns at the jail.

That fall, a majority of the council voted to make jail operations part of Sheriff John Lovick’s job, starting Jan. 1, 2009.

Council Chairman Dave Gossett voted to move the jail, but worried the council was acting too quickly. The past year has dispelled those initial doubts, he said.

“I think it’s been going very well. I’ve been very impressed with the job that Sheriff Lovick has done,” he said. “There are two key issues. One is better labor relations. Two is a better control over overtime.”

Last week, Reardon said he advocated moving the jail for years before the council acted, and that it was “an idea that I pushed for a very long time.”

In a Nov. 6, 2008, memo to the County Council, Reardon urged delay.

“Rather than making this precipitous move at this time, I urge the council to take a step back and to engage in a thoughtful analysis of the ramifications of such a decision,” he wrote. “Until and unless such an analysis is done, I cannot support this action.”

The county’s Department of Corrections had been part of the executive’s office since the 1980s. Before that, it had belonged to the sheriff, which is the arrangement in most of Washington’s 39 counties.

Snohomish County moved the jail away from the sheriff because problems there led to civil rights lawsuits. Still, the jail remained a source of legal trouble.

Former jail director Steve Thompson was hired in 2003 when the Corrections Department became the focus of repeated criminal investigations and soaring overtime bills.

He initially was greeted with support by corrections officers, but during his tenure became the subject of dozens of labor complaints filed by the Snohomish County Corrections Guild. A majority of those complaints were dismissed by arbitrators.

Thompson opposed transferring his department to Lovick’s care.

At the time, Thompson said the County Council made the change to take a jab at Reardon and predicted Lovick would face the same labor headaches.

So far, that hasn’t been the case.

“Overall, we’re very happy with the sheriff’s office management,” guild president Andy Pierce said. “It’s just a new attitude. The difference is they value their people, they value their employees. It’s just a more respectful and honest attitude.”

Under the new administration, employee concerns have been handled at the “lowest possible level,” Pierce said. Two employees who filed wrongful termination grievances related to the previous administration received $50,000 each last year, he said.

The jail also is the subject of two pending lawsuits in which female employees allege being sexually harassed by male supervisors before the sheriff’s office took over.

Corrections Bureau Chief Mark Baird said lowering overtime by a third has boosted morale and improved finances. A key component was lowering mandatory overtime shifts by 93 percent. There were 30 mandatory shifts in 2009 compared to 411 the year before.

The number of worker grievances fell more than 76 percent, he said. There were 27 in 2009 compared to 114 in 2008. Sick leave dropped about 6 percent during the same period.

The drop in overtime saved taxpayers $1.35 million, Administrative Bureau Chief Rob Beidler said. In 2009, the jail also brought in an extra $2 million in revenue — about $12.8 million in 2009 compared to $10.8 million in 2008.

That happened through signing outside contracts with places such as Skagit County and the city of Kirkland to keep the beds full, as well as supplying services such as work crews, he said.

“Keeping the beds full is the best thing for Snohomish County’s general fund,” Beidler said. “Not just for the sheriff’s office, but for the general fund.”

Councilman Brian Sullivan said having the sheriff run the jail is saving the county millions of dollars.

“I would say that the transition has been 100 percent positive,” he said. “I can attribute that to the sheriff and his staff.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3565, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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