Bed rentals mean more local jail beds

by: Darryl Swan

Bed rentals to the federal government and other entities were part of the plan for funding operations when the current Columbia County Jail facility was designed and built in 1999 to replace the decrepit 38-bed facility in the basement of the courthouse.

When voters approved the bond levy that funded the construction of the jail, they approved funds for construction only-no operational funds were included. Adding extra beds that could be rented to other governments was considered a good idea to offset the cost of operation to the taxpayer.

As the operational costs became more clear, it was also clear that the cost of running the jail was eating into the other operational costs of the Sheriff's Office, and patrol deputy numbers have steadily shrunk as a result.

In succeeding years, efforts at the ballot box to offset the cost to the general fund for Sheriff's Office operations have failed. A primary way to keep the cost of the jail from overwhelming the few remaining deputies who can respond to criminal calls is the ability of the sheriff to rent beds to the federal government.

The current amount of support from the county can provide 40 jail beds at a sustainable level to the state and municipal courts. With U.S. Marshal's Office detainees taking up 85 jail beds, we can afford to increase that number to 60 beds for local offenders and still keep a skeleton enforcement crew in place to respond to and investigate the most serious offenses.

Heavy reductions in USM beds will cause severe staffing cuts and bring us back to 40 beds in the jail, and no enforcement response in the county.

When I ran for sheriff in 2008, I envisioned the potential of deep cuts to services and how we would continue to do the best we could with whatever resources we would have to carry out our mission. Utilizing federal bed rental income to augment our services is the one thing we have been able to do in order to maintain at least some level of service.

We are coming off of a resounding defeat of our levy efforts this past spring after presenting a clear choice to voters. Voters spoke loudly that we should make adjustments to cope with the revenue we already have-just as they have been forced to do.

I am fully embracing the challenge to do exactly that. As difficult as the move is to release certain offenders back into the community early, we really have no choice. The maximum time for any sentence in the county jail is one year.

I will do my best to make sure the most violent and troublesome offenders serve as much of their sentenced time as possible, but the current number of beds -195 - will need to be scaled back to 150 this fall.

We know this will affect everyone involved with public safety in our county, and we will continue to work with our partners to establish the protocol we will follow with our jail releases in the future.

We can't house more criminals or respond to more 9-1-1 calls without the personnel needed to perform those services, but our desire to make a difference for good has not changed. We remember our role as public servants, and as consumers of taxes paid by citizens, many of which are undergoing financial hardships of their own.

Many are struggling to make ends meet and doing what they can with what they have.

I am committed to doing the same, as we go through these difficult times together.

Jeff Dickerson is the Columbia County Sheriff. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at 503-366-4611.