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Its time to abandon countywide sheriffs patrol levy attempts

by: Metro Graphics

In each of the last four Columbia County Sheriff's Office attempts to have voters pass a patrol levy, there have been qualitative reasons why it failed. The first time around in November 2005, for instance, could be chalked up to planning; other than a Scappoose fire district initiative, it was the only measure on the ballot, which at the time had a double-majority requirement.

The second time, in May 2006, it would have passed except for the dastardly double-majority requirement. Some could argue the slim voter turnout was in itself a vote against the levy. Perhaps we'll never know. In November 2006 a patrol levy was again attempted, though marketing for its passage was almost completely absent. Reading through past editions of The Spotlight paints a picture that marketing was skipped under the presumption voters wanted it to pass. Not so.

Now, as the fourth iteration of the sheriff's patrol levy in five years has come and gone, and has been resoundingly defeated even though there had been a realistic and visible campaign aimed at its passage and no double-majority requirement to blame, it's time for the Sheriff's Office and rural Columbia County residents to rethink patrol expectations and expenses. Would it have passed during high economic times and a more pleasant and popular perception of government spending? Maybe, but given history's testimony, it wouldn't be wise to bank on it. Time to cut your losses and move on.

To start, it's now clear a countywide levy to fund Sheriff's Office patrols is likely to never gain traction within the incorporated cities. Residents in Scappoose and St. Helens, for instance, already pay a tax that provides them with patrol services. Why pay an additional fee so that rural residents are covered? Why indeed.

Instead, the Sheriff's Office should regroup - and soon - with a new proposal that would establish a patrol district encompassing solely the unincorporated areas of Columbia County. It would be those residents who are not being served by patrols, and those residents only, who could vote on the levy and control their own fate. Admittedly, by reducing the quantity of people who would be paying into the levy, the current proposal of 12 new positions in the sheriff's office, including six patrol deputies, three investigators, two sworn supervisors and a support clerk, might not be feasible.

The levy would also have paid for two corrections deputies and a jail mental health program that are currently funded by a federal grant slated to expire this year. Though these might be worthwhile positions and programs, perhaps filling only one corrections deputy position and ditching the mental health program should occur.

The Sheriff's Office and levy supporters must accept the reality that many taxpayers are jaded and, in light of debacles such at the Columbia Health District hospital disaster, unwilling to pay for anything that gives off even a slight whiff of excess. It's probably even safe to say the average homeowner could care less about the jail mental health program, even though criminal rehabilitation versus repeat incarcerations of the same individual arguably provide more bang for the buck.

While a service district would answer the question regarding patrols, it would not address the current concern that Columbia County has limited investigative resources to pursue larger, more violent crimes, which, as we reported in the May 11 edition of The Spotlight, are up from prior years.

One final note: Though the Columbia County Jail was built on the premise city police agencies, and hence city residents, would not have to pay any of the cost to run it, even though offenders picked up by city police agencies are frequently processed and overseen by jail staff, that seems like a short-sighted promise made from the lips of the prior Sheriff's Office administration that has now tied the hands of all present and future administrations. Though we're not currently advocating for the Sheriff's Office to abandon that pledge, it's not unreasonable that city agencies should contribute a processing fee at the jail, desperate times being what they are.