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Clock ticking, but county won't make first move on jail levy

Sheriff: Jail likely to close by end of June without new revenue


by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - The Columbia County Jail, pictured days before county voters shot down a $9.57 million levy county officials wanted to keep the facility funded for another four years last fall.Officials in Columbia County are still smarting from the rebuke voters dealt them last November, when an operating levy option for the Columbia County Jail placed on the ballot by the Board of County Commissioners and backed by all of the county’s mayors went down to a resounding defeat.

To that end, County Commissioner Earl Fisher indicated last Wednesday, Jan. 15, that despite a dwindling timeframe to get a ballot measure set for the May primary election, county leaders are in no rush to try again.

“If you wait and we have more meetings and we have more discussion and we do all of that stuff that we do at those meetings, and nobody does anything, by default, there will be nothing filed on the ballot,” Fisher said. “So if you have any interest, go out and get the signatures.”

Feb. 19 is the date by which petitioners must submit at least 1,211 signatures from registered Columbia County voters — 6 percent of the number of votes cast in the county for governor in the 2010 election — for verification by county elections officials.

Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said Tuesday that his office expects to close the jail this year, probably at the end of June.

“Barring some sudden increase in cash, large amounts of cash, we’re going to have to,” Dickerson said.

The 255-bed jail was constructed after county voters approved a $13.9 million bond in 1998. At the time, the Board of County Commissioners declined to place a measure to provide operating funds for the facility on the ballot. As county revenues have dwindled and federal bed rentals at the jail have proven insufficient to cover the funding gap, the jail has seen its bed capacity for local offenders slashed — from 65 beds to 25 last year — and the commissioners and the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office began warning last year that the jail was in imminent danger of closure unless voters approved the $9.57 million bond measure.

But voters shot down the measure by a 2,027-vote margin — a 16.6 percentage point defeat — and the county has been forced to look at alternative plans.

According to Dickerson, Columbia County has struck a tentative deal with Polk County, wherein up to 10 high-priority inmates will be housed there. Dickerson said the county will pay a nightly rate of $65 per bed to reserve 10 beds at the Polk County Jail in Dallas, with an option to rent additional beds as needed for $75 each.

The rest of the jail’s inmates, Dickerson said, will be released.

Transporting suspects to and from Dallas will take about 2 hours each way, and responsibility for the transport will fall on local law enforcement agencies, though Dickerson said Tuesday that he does not anticipate officers will need to take suspects down to the jail very often with only 10 beds reserved.

Columbia City Mayor Cheryl Young expressed dismay over the jail situation at a City Council meeting in her city last Thursday. She said the county should make a last-ditch campaign for an operating levy this spring.

“I think it would be an error to not go out at the May election,” Young said.

Council Member Sally Ann Marson agreed.

“The bottom line is, the issue is so important, it deserves at least a second chance at the polls,” said Marson.

There is a recent precedent in Oregon for a county convincing previously skeptical voters to support a jail operating levy on the May ballot.

Lane County officials considered going out for a measure to fund their jail in November 2012 before deciding to put the question to county voters in May 2013 instead, a Lane County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman told the Spotlight last October.

The $67.3 million levy, which will keep the Lane County Jail funded for five years at a 135-bed capacity for local inmates, was approved handily by voters, with a 13.9-point margin of victory.

But the appetite in the Columbia County government for another board-driven levy campaign appears to be practically nonexistent.

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Earl Fisher“I’m not going to run a levy,” Fisher said this Wednesday, Jan. 22, at the county commissioners’ weekly meeting.

And asked Tuesday whether he would support a second jail levy push, Dickerson sighed.

“I don’t know,” Dickerson said after a moment. “I don’t even know if it would pass.”

Both Fisher and Dickerson added that they would support a levy if citizens petitioned one onto the ballot.

But Dickerson cautioned that he does not believe any option smaller than the $9.57 million measure that voters rejected last year would be enough to keep the jail open, thanks to projected overhead cost increases and declining interest from federal agencies like the U.S. Marshals Service that rent jail beds.

“The option that we had was one that would get the jail to a place where we can be self-sustaining,” said Dickerson. “Right now, we don’t have enough staff to run the jail. We’ve been running it on shoestring and bubblegum to keep it open as long as we have.”

Columbia County commissioners will hold another meeting on the jail’s future in Clatskanie on Thursday, Jan. 30, at 555 Southwest Bryant Street. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. and is open to the public.