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Medical costs push county jail $1.4 million over budget

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By Noah Haglund
Herald Writer
EVERETT — The Snohomish County Jail overspent last year’s budget by well over $1 million, largely because of higher-than-expected medical costs for inmates.
The price of providing access to doctors, nurses and medication accounted for most of the overrun, according to leaders at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, who oversee the lockup. Health services are required by law, so the jail must provide them to the approximately 1,160 people in custody on any given day.
“This is something we’re unhappy about,” said Chief Rob Beidler, who heads administrative services for the sheriff’s office. “We have put together a plan that will keep us at budget and will provide the medical services that we are required to give inmates.”
Money to cover the $1.4 million in unexpected jail costs will come out of the county’s cash reserves. On Wednesday, the Snohomish County Council voted 4-0 to approve an emergency budget transfer.
The Corrections Bureau’s overall budget last year was $38.9 million, before Wednesday’s action. For 2011, it’s $41.5 million.
Word of the extra expenses comes after the jail has received praise for cutting down on overtime and smoothing out labor issues, which previously contributed to a high number of grievances.
The positive changes have been seen by some in county government as a sign that the jail was thriving under the management of Sheriff John Lovick. The County Council moved oversight of the jail to Lovick’s office, and away from County Executive Aaron Reardon’s office, starting Jan. 1, 2009.
The jail did make or beat budget last year in some nonmedical areas, Beidler said. Also, the jail has inked contracts to house inmates from outside Snohomish County. Those include agreements with Skagit County and cities in King County, including Seattle.
Those inmates bring more revenue, but also more expenses, Corrections Bureau Chief Mark Baird said. The net effect is positive, though, because they help fill jail beds and put the facility to more efficient use.
“We’re certainly better off to be able to do that,” Baird said. Without them, “our costs would not appreciably drop.”
Much of past year’s jail cost overrun can be traced to two areas: $420,000 for pharmacist services and $445,000 to pay for independent nurses. Jail operations have been hampered by tough competition with other employers. The county has struggled to hire two highly skilled nurse practitioners who are able to write prescriptions. While those jobs remain open, the jail has had to contract with outside providers.
There was no public criticism of the Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, when council members agreed to transfer extra money to the jail budget.
County Councilman Dave Gossett, who oversaw the budget process as council chairman last year, said afterward he expected some extra costs at the jail, but not this much.
“A lot of this has to do with issues that aren’t under anyone’s control,” he said. “A lot of the medical bills just didn’t come in until late.”
The extra jail money equals less than 1 percent of last year’s approximately $200 million county operating budget. About three-quarters of the operating budget is tied to law, justice and safety.
The hit from the jail depletes cash reserves that county leaders have worked hard to build up during the past year. The county still should be able to maintain a healthy amount in reserve, Gossett said.
To prevent problems from recurring in 2011, sheriff’s officials plan to meet regularly with the county’s finance department and County Council staff.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465,
Story tags » Sheriff

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