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Community offers jail suggestions, criticism

Concerns range from jail closure signaling open season on the county to none at all


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Ray Biggs, member of the St. Helens School District Board, suggested that police departments in the county could step in to share responsibilities with the Columbia County Sheriffs Office to relieve some of burden of the county budget crisis. Stakeholders in the future of Columbia County’s under-funded jail held a town hall meeting Tuesday night at the Calvary Chapel Fellowship in St. Helens to hear public input on the jail’s future.

Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson kicked off the meeting, saying the jail will cost an estimated $4.8 million to operate for the next budget year.

“We can’t touch that with the amount of revenue we get from the county,” Dickerson said, adding that with the county’s shrinking budget, the Sheriff’s Office will be short about $1.9 million to fund the jail.

Dickerson said the option the Sheriff’s Office is currently leaning toward involves closing the Columbia County Jail completely and transporting 10 of the county’s worst inmates to beds rented at the Polk County Jail in Dallas — a two-hour drive from St. Helens. The jail’s remaining inmates, aside from U.S. Marshal’s Service holds, would be released as a result of the closure.

Input at the meeting was mixed.

Some criticized the Sheriff’s Office and county commissioners for building the state-of-the-art jail facility in the first place and offered alternative options for criminal justice in the county. Others complained about the prospect that a closed jail would attract criminals from around the region.

“When these bad guys get the word that there’s no jail in Columbia County, they’ll come from Longview [Wash.], they’ll come from Portland, they’ll come from everywhere to come in here to prey on our population because they know part of law enforcement is punishment,” said Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl.

In the Nov. 5 general election, Columbia County voters rejected a $9.57 million levy to fund the 255-bed facility for four years. County commissioners said they are currently not planning on going forward with another levy campaign this year. Still, some community members said they would be open to another levy if properly campaigned for.

After nearly an hour of discussion between commissioners, mayors, judges and other county officials, the meeting was opened to public comment.

County Commissioner Tony Hyde said one of the points offered through public comment that stood out to him was the prospect of a community police force.

“It’s very effective,” he said. “If we do that on a mega scale rather than on a micro scale, it could be very effective.”

Columbia County lawyer Rock Pizzo offered input on how the jail might be able to say open while the Sheriff’s Office gears its criminal justice efforts toward issuing fines and addiction treatment for repeat offenders.

“If we can keep 10 beds here, that will give us an easier start-up when the economy improves,” he said. “We can go thorough treatments, make it work through fines instead of jails.”

Asked what the cost would be to resurrect the jail after shutting it down, Dickerson answered the amount would be substantial, but had no exact number. by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Scappoose Resident and business owner Brady Preheim launched a website in opposition of the $9.57 million levy to fund the jail that was rejected by voters last November. Preheim argued at the Tuesday meeting that the county should have held meetings for public input prior to seeking a levy to fund the jail, rather than after.

“It would be roughly double what the rate is now.” he said.

Deer Island resident Tammy Maygra spoke out about how the county moved forward with no plan to fund jail operations before it was built, and highlighted the county’s action to give tax abatements to corporations within the county.

“There was a 15-year, $33 million tax abatement given to PGE down at Port Westward for their second phase of their turbine generation. That is about $2.2 million a year. That would’ve went a long way for the school, the roads, the sheriff’s program — you know, the jail,” Maygra said. “If you really wanna hear this plan, quit giving away tax abatements to corporations that don’t need it.”

Hyde defended the county against Maygra’s comments.

“I will defend to the end of my day us being in the game of tax abatements,” he said.

Hyde referenced a tax abatement provided to USG, a wallboard manufacturing company in Rainier, that helped recruit the company. Upon the tax abatement’s expiration, the county started collecting taxes.

“Today, we’re getting $2.5 million a year from them,” Hyde said. “Not only are we getting tax dollars from them, but we are enjoying over 80 percent of their employees — which is somewhere around 100 — coming from Columbia County ... that was worth it for this county.”

Columbia County resident Andy Johnson said he failed to see how the jail’s closure would affect him personally.

“I can’t see where closing the jail is gonna affect me,” Johnson said. “I’ve had three thefts from my house, and none of them were solved, and I’m thinking, well if the jail closes, really short of a murder or something, how does this affect me?”

Some in the audience also asked if the county had looked internally for revenue to fund the jail.

“We’ve actually done that in that we reduced [county staff’s] wages by 28 days, which is a 10 percent cut,” Hyde said, adding that the commissioners took a cut as well.

County Commissioner Henry Heimuller said after the meeting he felt the county had exhausted all its resources in the search for revenue to fund the jail.

“Certainly people think we haven’t looked under every rock when, in fact, we have looked under every rock,” he said. “The bottom line is, we built it without an adequate, long-term funding source.”

Heimuller said he wasn’t sure whether the rearranging of funds within the county would be enough to “save the ship before it sinks.”