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County budget could open Wapato Jail

Chairman Ted Wheeler says closed facility 'overshadows everything we do'

Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler proposed a plan Thursday to open the completed-but- never-opened Wapato Jail early next year while closing two floors of the downtown jail, as part of his 2008-09 budget.

Striking a compromise between county factions with differing corrections approaches, Wheeler proposed opening 75 traditional jail beds at Wapato, plus space for 50 offenders undergoing intensive drug and alcohol treatment. That's a change from Wheeler's earlier proposal for 150 beds for drug and alcohol treatment.

Voters approved the 525-bed Wapato in a 1996 bond measure. But the $58 million jail, completed in mid-2004, has never opened because county officials have not found money to operate it.

Wheeler, who pledged to open the jail when he ran for office in 2006, said the empty facility has brought the county 'dubious recognition' and hindered progress on other fronts.

'The Wapato question overshadows everything we do here,' Wheeler said in an interview.

'As long as the facility remains closed,' he said in a prepared budget message, 'I believe it will continue to undercut the credibility of Multnomah County government.'

Wheeler also proposed $11 million in permanent program cuts, which he said will help bridge the $18.7 million gap between county revenue and expenses. The biggest cuts would come from shuttering the seventh and eighth floors of the Multnomah County Detention Center, the downtown jail. However, many of the offenders there would be shifted to Wapato.

Closing the 94 jail beds on the eighth floor of Multnomah County Detention Center would eliminate 'some of the most expensive jail beds in the entire system,' Wheeler noted. And those beds haven't been fully utilized.

County officials hope that floor could be converted in the future to house offenders on work-release programs, perhaps with funding from a potential public safety levy.

In addition, every county department would be obligated to help trim expenses, for a total of $1.8 million in reduced spending.

Public safety money

The county has $38 million in unexpected tax revenue that could be spent in the new budget, but are considered one-time funds. Wheeler said with the recession looming, there's no guarantee the county will have any one-time funds next year.

He proposed setting aside $24 million of the $38 million to pay down loans on county-owned buildings and other debts. That one move, likely to be opposed by advocates for programs on the chopping block, would shave $4 million in annual costs to the county, further closing the county's long-term funding gap.

Last year at this time, when he proposed his first budget as newly elected county chair, Wheeler proposed $15 million in cuts to close the county's 'structural deficit.' But he failed to get much support from other county commissioners, and less than $2 million of those cuts ultimately were adopted by the full board.

This time will be different, Wheeler predicted. 'I think it'll be an easier sell this year than in the past,' he said, because of the sagging economy. 'I'm not sure how much persuading I'm going to have to do.'

This will be the last budget adoption process for three of the five commissioners. Lisa Naito, Maria Rojo de Steffey and Lonnie Roberts leave office six months after the 2008-09 budget takes effect in July. Naito has already said she's open to tax-raising measures to give the county more money, and to spare programs.

Commissioners have shown concern in the past about reductions in public safety in the county, said Christine Kirk, chief of staff to Sheriff Bernie Giusto.

'We look forward to engaging with the board,' she said.

New shortfall

Wheeler's budget largely shielded programs in mental health, aging and disabled services, libraries, and animal control.

He set aside $6.9 million in one-time funds to open Wapato, but that only covers opening costs and a half-year's operation. Running Wapato with the 125 beds Wheeler proposed will cost an estimated $6 million above current costs, if two floors of the county jail are closed, he said.

That could create a new budget shortfall in future years, after Wheeler made a point of closing the existing deficit in his 2008-09 budget.

'It is a calculated risk,' Wheeler said. The county would have to make future cuts or get additional revenues to cover it in future years, he said.

Though county officials have polled the idea of a public safety levy to appear on the November ballot, Wheeler insisted the decision hasn't been made to go forward with the property tax levy. He didn't build his 2008-09 budget proposal with that in mind, Wheeler said.

He anticipates there may be demand from the state to use additional Wapato beds, with two tough-on-crime ballot measures before Oregon voters in November.

Opening Wapato may not appear to make economic sense in the short-term, he said, but 'I'm looking two, three, four years down the road.' If the state pays to lease space at Wapato, that reduces the costs per bed of opening the jail.

Wheeler also proposed setting aside $1 million to provide a facility for mentally ill people who otherwise are improperly lodged in jails or hospitals.

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Budget Highlights:

Total budget $913.9 million (not counting contingency of $33 million)

Total full-time county positions: 4,539, an increase of 99.

Reduces $18.7 million gap between ongoing revenues and expenses via $11 million cuts to programs, and $4 million in reduced debts.

Increases

Increase sheriff's patrol in unincorporated areas and add community resource officer in Corbett

Expand hours of teen clinic at East County Health Center

Pilot program for juveniles at Donald E. Long facility in Northeast Portland, where they could get mentoring, job skills and transitional planning.

Open two libraries in Kenton neighborhood in North Portland and Troutdale

Cut programs:

Have departments come up with unspecified cuts to absorb inflation costs ($1.8 million)

Eliminate the 'field' work release program, started last year, which monitors inmates released to the community. ($1.1 million)

Reduce expenses in motor vehicles, computers, landscaping ($1 million)

Reorganize school-based health clinics (save $800,000)

Get shared funding for 'detox' services ($800,000)

Close 16 juvenile detention spaces: ($610,000)

Three public hearings are scheduled for citizens to testify about the budget or learn more details. All three are from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Here are the dates and locations:

• May 6, Multnomah County East Building, Sharron Kelley Conference Room, 600 N.E. Eighth St., Gresham.

• May 13, SEI Auditorium, 3920 N. Kerby Ave., Portland.

• May 19, Multnomah Building, Commissioners Boardroom, 501 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland.

For more information, check the county's budget Web page, www.co.multnomah.or.us/budget .