After a couple of years of encouraging cities to take their prisoners elsewhere, the Snohomish County Jail is lowering its rates to attract more inmates when its new jail opens...

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After a couple of years of encouraging cities to take their prisoners elsewhere, the Snohomish County Jail is lowering its rates to attract more inmates when its new jail opens next spring.

In addition, the jail is offering incentives to cities if they commit to using Snohomish County’s jail exclusively.

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“What we were doing was basically pricing ourselves out of the market,” said Mike West, the programs operations analyst for the county Corrections Department.

The existing jail was built 20 years ago for 277 inmates but regularly houses twice that many. To keep the jail from getting even more crowded, Snohomish County raised its rates, and many cities have been sending their inmates to Eastern Washington jails that charge less.

But with the planned opening of the new jail in March, the county is giving the cities a number of rate options:

• Cities can estimate how many inmates they will have in the jail and pay for that space to be guaranteed. That means if they agree to pay for a certain number of inmates, they have to pay the fees even if they use the jail less often. If cities go over their estimates, they can book inmates into the jail as long as there is space.

Cities can agree to house inmates exclusively at the Snohomish County Jail and get priority for available jail beds.

Cities can make no commitment to the jail, allowing them to house inmates if there is space but getting no guarantee.

The new system will help the county know how many inmates to plan for and will allow the county to charge less per inmate than it does now.

“This puts the cities in a great new position for their planning,” said Steve Thompson, the jail’s director.

After Jan. 1, the county will charge $85 to book an inmate and $56 a day to hold the inmate. Currently, the county charges $102 for booking and $65 a day.

County Executive Aaron Reardon said the new system will be more efficient. But not all jurisdictions are pleased.

The Mill Creek Police Department’s records supervisor, Becky Erk, said the new contract will be more expensive for her city, which has spent more than $93,000 on jail fees this year. Erk said it’s possible the city won’t need the five beds a day it has signed up for but will have to pay for them anyway.

“The taxpayers get hosed because we have to bid,” she said.

But Lynnwood’s detention commander, Don Cirino, said he thinks Lynnwood will save money because of the lower rates.

“We look at it as a win-win contract,” he said.

But the lower rates didn’t persuade Lynnwood to use Snohomish County Jail exclusively. The city pays $35 to $42 a day per inmate in Eastern Washington.

It’s not clear yet how many cities will agree to an exclusive contract with the county.

Some cities want the county to change the way it bills for those arrested on more than one warrant. The county doesn’t have the technology to split up the bill, so the city that has the highest bail set on the inmate ends up paying the bill.

If two bail amounts are equal, the county splits the bills by hand, and Thompson said he would like to be able to split bills all the time, but he’s not sure how much it would cost to change the billing system.

Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Scott Smith said Thompson should have figured that out earlier in the contract negotiations between the jail and the cities.

“He did commit to looking at that issue when we began negotiations months ago,” he said.

But Smith said that dispute won’t hold up the contract.

Erk said she thinks the cities should insist on the split billing.

“We typically have jail bills that are eating us up, and I feel like it’s our fiscal responsibility to make sure that our contract has this taken care of,” she said.

Jail administrators presented the new contracts to the County Council on Monday.

Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or eheffter@seattletimes.com