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Questions thwart jail levy endorsement

Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde is correct when he reports that the county’s fate is tied to its economic growth (see “Jail levy campaign enters home stretch,” page A1).

Barring new investment in the county and its inclusion on the tax rolls — as recently happened when Portland General Electric’s Port Westward Generating Plant substantially increased its tax payments to the county to $3.72 million this year — and an overall increase in the countywide tax base, government officials are left with little recourse but to ask taxpayers to make up the difference in the form of new construction and operational levies.

Now up for consideration on the Nov. 5 ballot is Measure 5-234, which asks county voters to approve an operational levy for the Columbia County Jail. If approved, the four-year tax levy is anticipated to generate a total of $9.57 million, based on a rate of 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. For a home assessed at $200,000, the property owner would pay $115.94 annually. Over the course of the four-year levy, the property owner would pay an additional $463.76, not accounting for annual increases in assessed property values.

There are many questions Columbia County voters should consider. Is this the best use of taxpayer dollars? Is it a better option than transporting prisoners, especially those who genuinely pose a public safety threat, to other jail facilities? Could the jail be modified to reduce costs? What is the most cost-effective solution for Columbia County?

To go even deeper, should the community step up and fund the flawed business model that is the Columbia County Jail, a 255-bed facility originally constructed as the result of a vision that involved substantial bed rentals to federal agencies? The vision for it, in our opinion, was flawed when the jail was pitched to voters in 1998.

These are not easy questions to answer. And, to be honest, we are still left with a lot of other questions about jail operations and its long-term prospect for fiscal stability.

There has been a glaring unwillingness — a lack of transparency? — to discuss the fundamental failings of the jail, such as the fact it was built too big under a prior Sheriff’s Office administration with the idea that federal dollars, never a guarantee though implied as such, would fund its operations. As county officials have learned, other counties compete for those federal inmate holds and, as occurred soon after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement erected a large holding facility in Tacoma, Wash., changes in federal procedure can happen with little notice or concern for local expectations. Archives in the Spotlight illustrate such questions were raised at the time the new jail was proposed for construction, though the questions never found purchase.

To be clear, however, we do not believe the Sheriff’s Office or other county officials are exaggerating the dire plight of the jail and the fact that it very well could close, soon, without additional funding. The early release of criminals sends a message that, barring serious violent offences, if you break the law in Columbia County you will likely not spend much time in jail. That’s a poor message to broadcast to the criminal element. Unquestionably it creates a less-safe community, one in which those who view jail time as a sole deterrent are made bolder by the county’s sheer inability to incarcerate them.

Still, we are uncomfortable endorsing a levy at this time to subsidize operations for the jail. We believe it is also important to point out that the jail is funded at its current level through June 2014, so the levy, if approved, will not remedy the current situation. Money from the levy would not be collected until July. There is time to further vet this important tax issue.

We want to see a full range of alternatives explored before advocating to our readers to rubber stamp what promises to be a short-term Band-Aid for the jail. The problem with Band-Aids, especially as taxpayer-funded government services are concerned, is that they serve as a disincentive for officials to lance the real poison out of the system.

Our advice to jail levy stakeholders is to return in May with a more thoughtful, detailed plan, including a full weighing of the pros and cons of shuttering the jail, perhaps temporarily until economic conditions improve, and the exploration of a full range of alternatives. If the levy is the only solution, then make a better case for it.

County officials should use the additional time to make a stronger argument for the jail levy and address what, exactly, is the plan for how the levy dollars will be used and what will really happen when the levy expires in four years.