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Public support varies by issue

Voters’ preference for treatment services may shape safety levy
by: KYLE GREEN, County Chairman Ted Wheeler will unveil his proposed spending plan Thursday, which is expected to include details of his plan to open part of Wapato jail, which was completed in 2004 but remains empty.

Despite a recent poll showing support for a possible public safety levy, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners will be challenged to write one that has a realistic chance of passing. The commissioners are considering referring a property tax levy to fund a variety of public safety-related programs to the November general election. They were briefed last Wednesday on a poll that suggested voters might approve such a levy — if it included the right mix of programs. Rhys Scholes, the communication policy director for Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler, said the poll would not be used to determine the mix of programs in the levy. In fact, Scholes said, the commission has yet to decide whether to place such a measure on the ballot at all. If it does, Scholes said, the commission will base the package on a broad range of information, including a public safety study released in January and feedback from public forums. But the poll suggests that voter support for the levy could be increased by including funding for certain programs. The poll found more support for preventive and treatment programs than for increasing jail beds. The importance of the mix of these programs was revealed by questions at the beginning and end of the poll. Before any of the possible programs were mentioned, the margin of support for a public safety levy was just over the 50-percent mark needed for approval, with 54 percent supporting, 38 percent against and 8 percent undecided. After numerous questions on possible programs, including mental health and substance abuse services, the margin of support jumped to a more comfortable 10 percentage points over what’s required for passage — up to 60 percent in favor compared to 32 percent opposed, with 8 percent again undecided. Even more revealing was a question asking voters how the county should set its public safety priorities. Increasing access to mental health care was first, with 32 percent naming it their top priority, followed by mandating substance-abuse treatment for offenders with 28 percent. The next priority was increasing efforts to prevent child abuse with 17 percent, followed closely by increasing the number of jail beds with 15 percent. Although emphasizing mental-health and substance-abuse services over jail beds may increase voter support, it also could alienate an important constituency in the election — local law enforcement officials. Asked about the poll after it was released, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk said it was important that the levy be balanced between what he termed “soft” and “hard” services. “Mental health and substance-abuse services are important, but so are jail beds,” Schrunk said. “There has to be a hard deterrent to convince offenders to take advantage of the services.” Phil Anderchuk, president of the Multnomah County Corrections Deputies Association, agreed. “You have to consider the needs of the entire (criminal justice) system,” he said. Anderchuk said that before his members would support the levy, the commissioners needed to increase jail funding in next year’s county budget. According to Anderchuk, because of budget cuts over the past six years, the number of beds in the county system has dropped from around 2,300 in 2002 to about 1,600 — leading to early releases of criminals, including repeat offenders who go on to commit more crimes. “We want the commission to do something now, not put it off in the hopes the voters will approve something later,” he said. Anderchuk and his members will find out more about next year’s budget when Wheeler unveils his proposed spending plan Thursday. Scholes said it will include the long-awaited details of Wheeler’s plan to open a portion of Wapato jail. Because of budget problems, the $58 million facility has never opened. Wheeler has committed to using a portion of it for secure treatment beds. He has since been in discussions with the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices over alternatives. Such issues prompted the commission to launch a comprehensive $158,000 study of the county justice system last year. Chaired by Multnomah County Circuit Judge Dale Koch, it brought together representatives from all related agencies to discuss how to set priorities during times of declining revenues. Its report, released in January, concluded among other things that all agencies needed to work together and share resources. After that, the commission retained Heidi von Szeliski and Associates to poll county residents on their feelings about the public-safety system and willingness to support a levy. Although it asked about a levy that would cost homeowners around $140 a year, Scholes said that number was for survey purposes only and does not mean the commission had already agreed on a specific budget figure. Questions in the $32,000 poll covered a wide range of related issues, ranging from child abuse to mental health services to job training for juvenile offenders. It found strong support for intervention programs — including a new mental health center — that would help prevent people from being arrested in the first place. State election law gives the commission until early September to finalize such a levy for the November ballot. Scholes said if the commission supports the referral, the decision will probably be made sooner to allow time for a campaign supporting it to be formed. No plans have yet been announced for public forums on the possible levy. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.