Changes at county jail improving safety, reducing overtime

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office is contemplating a future where it may be forced to trim millions of dollars from law enforcement programs.

But along with that tough economic news, there’s a bright spot. And it is coming from a place that’s more often been associated with costly trouble: the county jail.

Efforts to better manage operations at the lockup in Everett have not only led to safety improvements, they also are reducing reliance on overtime, officials say.

Unlike recent years when the sheriff’s office has routinely needed hundreds of thousands of dollars extra to cover surprise overtime costs at the jail, this year it’s on track to be about $390,000 below budgeted targets.

“Right now we are poised to be under budget for 2016,” Sheriff Ty Trenary said.

Those projections were supported by a Sept. 6 report from the county’s performance auditor focusing on overtime spending at the sheriff’s office. Auditors found that changes in how the jail is managed mean it’s likely to reduce overtime for corrections employees this year by more than 4,300 hours.

The audit linked rising jail overtime in recent years in part to previously unfilled vacancies for corrections deputies. It also found that labor agreements reached with union corrections staff have institutionalized hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime expenses. Auditors suggest that it is time for county leaders to take another look.

The news about jail costs comes as county officials are considering options for balancing the budget for 2017.

County Executive Dave Somers’ proposed operating budget for next year envisions about $6 million in cuts to county programs and services, including $2.4 million from the sheriff’s office. Somers has made clear he’s tried to diminish impacts on law enforcement, but it is hard to maneuver with 75 cents out of every general fund dollar going to pay for cops, courts and corrections.

The sheriff’s office 2016 budget is $102.5 million. Trenary last week outlined the likely places he’d make trims. The biggest cut would sideline the county’s work-release program, which allows people convicted of nonviolent crimes to serve time while still going to their jobs. Another big cut would be the Office of Neighborhoods, which sends teams of deputies with social workers into the streets to try to help homeless people and those struggling with addiction.

Trenary has been reluctantly offering up potential cuts at the same time some in county government have begun to talk wistfully about the revenue that could be captured if the sheriff’s office once again began looking at inmate bookings as a potential revenue center.

When Trenary began as sheriff in July 2013, he took over a jail plagued by spiraling overtime costs and questions over a string of inmate deaths. The sheriff consulted outside experts who encouraged him to dial back on bookings and to focus attention on improving the ability to monitor inmate health and safety.

The sheriff’s efforts have been noticed.

“Our current sheriff really inherited a mess, and they’ve worked really hard the last few years to turn this around,” County Council Chairman Terry Ryan said during a Sept. 27 presentation on the performance audit.

One reason jail overtime is down is that the sheriff’s office managers are using it differently, said Joanie Fadden, the sheriff’s administrative service bureau chief.

“The leadership over at the jail did an in-depth analysis of how they are staffing posts,” she said.

Changes were made on where corrections deputies are deployed and, as important, when. Considerable overtime was tracked to people trying to avoid shifts during nights and weekends. Corrections managers have implemented practices that make that less likely. The new approach also gives them flexibility in moving staff between assignments.

The audit suggested the sheriff’s office explore negotiating with union corrections officers regarding some practices that have institutionalized some overtime.

One expensive example stems from a 2010 settlement negotiated when Aaron Reardon was county executive and John Lovick was sheriff. The agreement required the county to add 10 minutes of overtime to each corrections deputy shift. The idea behind the “turnover pay” was to provide corrections staff with 10 minutes at the end of their shifts to brief their replacements.

Those 10 minutes are paid at 1.5 times the corrections deputies’ hourly rate. It adds up fast, the auditors found.

“Just in the two years 2014 and 2015, corrections has paid $762,885 in turnover pay,” they wrote. “The amount grew from nearly $353,000 in 2014 to more than $410,000 in 2015, an increase of over 16 percent.”

The auditors encouraged the sheriff’s office to explore renegotiating that agreement. Work schedules for corrections deputies should be flexible enough to allow brief overlap in shift changes without running afoul of federal labor laws, they noted. The auditors found that corrections workers in King County and Multnomah County in Oregon have built-in turnover time in their shifts, and it is not paid as overtime.

Undersheriff Rob Beidler told the council the recommendations from the auditor were helpful. He also said that when it comes to labor negotiations, there always is a cost.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews.

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