City may shut down jail

Oak Harbor officials may lock up the city jail and throw away the key, metaphorically speaking.

Oak Harbor Police Chief Kevin Dresker is working with Island County officials on an agreement for the county jail to take inmates from the city jail so that the aging facility can be permanently shut down.

The deal could save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars and be a revenue generator for the county. Both the Oak Harbor police and the Island County Sheriff’s Office hope to use the savings to boost staffing.

“I can use that money to put bodies on the street,” Dresker said during an interview.

Though the agreement hasn’t been finalized, Oak Harbor City Council members gave the proposal a thumbs-up at a council workshop last week. The Island County commissioners would also have to approve the plan.

Oak Harbor’s jail is the smallest in the state, with four cells and 12 beds. It was built in 1954 and looks like it, with old-fashioned bars, cramped space and chipped paint. Under state law, the city is responsible for housing misdemeanor inmates while the county takes the felony cases.

Dresker said his main concern with the proposal is the seven jail staff members. He explained that two of them could transition into non-commissioned positions he will create to transport inmates to the county jail in Coupeville, which is run by the sheriff’s office. Two others are interested in becoming police officers. That leaves two jail staff without jobs, but Island County and other agencies are hiring, he said.

Some inmates may also have concerns. Brian Braunstein, jail sergeant in Oak Harbor, said people tend to prefer the Oak Harbor jail because there’s TV and the food, from a local grocery, is considered better than the meals at the county jail.

Under the proposed five-year agreement, the city will pay the county $400,000 a year for eight beds, plus two overflow beds. The city’s cost for running its own jail is nearly $800,000 a year.

Jose Briones, Island County jail chief, said the deal with the city is contingent on the county entering into an agreement with Yakima to take county jail inmates if the number exceeds the 58-bed maximum. Yakima has a large jail and can care for inmates at a low cost.

It costs the county jail about $140 a day per inmate. Yakima charges around $55 per inmate a day and contracts with about 30 agencies across the state.

According to Briones, the county jail averages about 48 inmates.

Briones said he plans to use the money generated from the agreement to hire two corrections deputies to run a work crew a few days a week. The diversion program will allow offenders to do community service instead of going to jail.

“It’s another step forward in what we want to do, improve law enforcement and serve the community,” he said.

Dresker also has plans for hiring new staff.

In addition to the jail deal, he negotiated a new contract with Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation to shelter stray dogs and cats. Under the new deal, which saves $78,000, the facility that the city had been leasing to hold pets will be closed Nov. 1 and the animals will be transported to the WAIF facility in Coupeville.

In addition, Dresker worked out a new deal with the Oak Harbor School District under which the district funds $68,000 of the cost of a school resource officer. The district hadn’t contributed to the cost in recent years.

Dresker said he plans on using the savings from the three new agreements to hire the two jail transport positions, plus three more police officers. He said the extra police officers will allow the department to do more patrols focused on specific areas like downtown and parks.

Photo by Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times                                <em>Brian Braunstein, the jail sergeant in Oak Harbor, unlocks a door of the city jail, which is the smallest in the state.</em>

Photo by Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times Brian Braunstein, the jail sergeant in Oak Harbor, unlocks a door of the city jail, which is the smallest in the state.