Financial woes could lead to layoffs at Pierce County jail

TACOMA, Wash. -- A Pierce County council committee has approved a plan to lay off 16 corrections officers and shut down sections of its $50 million jail.

County officials say they don't have the money to staff the jail, even though taxpayers paid to keep it full. Now some are wondering if that tax money was wasted.

Thirty-eight county jail inmates are currently being housed in a area that was designed to handle more than 80 people. In the next few days, the pod will be shut down, like another right next to it. The end result will be that half of the $50 million facility will be empty.

That idea doesn't sit will with the taxpayers who paid for the facility.

"It is a total waste, and it's brand new stuff in there," said Tacoma resident Jennifer Owens.

Taxpayers approved a .5 percent sales tax hike to pay for the jail and keep it fully staffed. Even inmates think the taxpayers were cheated.

"Yes, the citizens of Washington paid for this jail to be built and it can't even be used," said inmate Justin Gosenberg. "It's a waste. A waste of money, period."

Pierce County executive Pat McCarthy was asked if building the jail was a mistake.

"I wouldn't be able to say whether it was a mistake or not," he said. "I think the times dictated that they needed a new jail."

But in its 10 years of operation, the jail's newer section has never been full. And now local city jails are offering lower rates to have police bring those arrested for misdemeanors to them.

The loss of business for the Pierce County regional jail is leading to a $5 million hole, and the committee voted for layoffs.

Emily Holznagel was hired as a corrections officer just four months ago, and now's she's being laid off.

"It sucks going into a career field where you think you're stable and always have that. There's always going to be criminals and people who get themselves in trouble," she said.

Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastore warned the County Council that continued cuts could have dire consequences.

"It's difficult to run a safe, secure jail at this time," Pastore said.

County officials say just because the jail isn't full doesn't mean inmates are being released early. They're simply going to other jails in the region that are able to offer lower prices.

A final decision on the budget is due next week.