White elephant jail gets more costly while sitting empty

TUMWATER, Wash. -- What a waste. Taxpayers had to foot the bill for a multi-million dollar jail in Thurston County that has yet to house a single inmate.

Now taxpayers just got slapped with $70,000 in emergency repairs for the old jail, which is outdated.

"This is a monument to bad, bad planning by elected officials," said Glen Morgan, a Thurston County resident and property rights activist.

It cost $48 million to build the new Thurston County Jail and more than $400,000 every year to keep it maintenance. It's sat empty for more than four years.

"Everybody wants this jail to be open because it's embarrassing, it should be embarrassing, " said Morgan

On top of the millions already spent, the old Thurston County Jail is open, overcrowded and now in need of $70,000 in repairs for touch screens that control doors, locks and intercoms.

"It's a safety issue for staff and inmates, we feel we have no choice," said Thurston County Commissioner Cathy Wolfe.

Wolfe said every week some inmates have to sleep on cots on the floor because of overcrowding.

The recession initially kept the doors to the new jail -- named the Accountability and Restitution Center -- closed, but now critics says it's all politics.

"In my opinion the taxpayers of Thurston County should be furious about how their tax dollars have been wasted," said Morgan.

Last month the Sheriff said it will take an extra $500,000 in his current budget to open the new jail. Otherwise he said he'd have to cut staff, which he consider a safety risk.

"That's what it costs," said the Sheriff during a December interview. "This is about public safety."

Morgan, the property right activists, thinks the county should dip into its intra-funds savings accounts for various county departments to find the money to get the new jail open. .

"We can't do it," Wolfe said. "If it were legal I'd be the first, we simply can't do it by state law we can't mix money between funds."

Steve Tilley with Justice not Jails says the new facility is more humane -- it's a community corrections lock down with open areas.

"This facility would provide a much more humane place to put people so they can start to get punishment or get their lives back in order before they're let go," Tilley said.

He's anxious for it to open and thinks it will give inmates better access to public defenders and social services.

"It doesn't matter whether it's an embarrassment or whose fault it was we have to move on," said Tiller.

Since our last report, Commissioner Wolfe says residents have put pressure on the county to act, and its working.

"It's still very difficult we are involved in very in depth conversations with the Sheriff. We are scrubbing the budget from ground zero," said Wolfe.

The Sheriff and Commissioners are scheduled to meet again next week. A spokesperson for the Thurston County Sheriff's Office told us late today, it found some areas where it too can shave a little from its budget.

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