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WANTED: A plan for the Wapato money pit

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - The 525-bed Wapato Jail has sat empty since 2004 but is costing more and more every year.Multnomah County taxpayers, so far, have paid more than $90 million for the Wapato Jail that has never opened — at least $32 million more than the $58 million figure frequently cited in media stories about the unused North Portland facilities.

The larger figure computed by the Portland Tribune includes interest paid to date on the state and county bonds used to finance the jail, plus the increasing amount of money the county is spending every year to maintain it. This year’s budgeted maintenance cost was $552,929, significantly higher than the $300,000 figure that has been previously cited.

The total cost could exceed $105 million by the time all the bonds are finally paid off in 2030 — and it’s possible Wapato will still be empty and requiring more and more maintenance after that.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury says she prefers to sell the 525-bed jail that was completed in 2004. It was never opened because the jail population began declining after that, and the county did not have readily available operating funds for it.

“It’s a black mark on the county,” Kafoury says about the money spent on Wapato.

No county plans for building yet

But all efforts to find a buyer have failed, and there is no new marketing effort underway. The county estimates it would cost $14 million to tear down Wapato and clear the land for another use.

In the meantime, Kafoury has ruled out opening even a portion of Wapato as a homeless shelter, a proposal made by the Portland Business Alliance and others as a way to house at least some of the growing number of homeless people living on the region’s streets, under bridges, and in wooded areas, such as along the Springwater Corridor.

Kafoury says Wapato is too far away from downtown social services and would cost too much to rehabilitate after more than a decade of neglect. County officials estimate the start-up costs at $5 million, plus an additional $950,000 to prepare it as a homeless shelter.

Sheriff has new idea

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton is working on a proposal to turn Wapato into a regional pre-release center. It will not be ready for next year's county budget, however.The only other idea for using Wapato in the future is one currently being developed by Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton and a work group he pulled together. Members are exploring the feasibility of using Wapato — which was designed as a minimum security jail with secure alcohol and drug treatment beds — as a regional pre-release center for inmates nearing the end of their sentences in county jails and being returned to their home counties after completing their sentences in state prisons.

“It could be a place where all the inmates nearing the end of their sentences from the counties in the region could be transferred, receive alcohol and drug treatment, receive counseling, and get help finding a job and a place to stay before they are released,” Staton says.

Staton also says Wapato could help mentally ill inmates transition back to society after they have been stabilized.

“Almost half of our inmates are mentally ill, and many of them commit crimes because they are not being treated and have a crisis. Once they’re stabilized, our existing jails are really not the best place to hold them,” Staton says.

Financing plan needs work

Staton began working on the proposal after discussions with Affordable Health Clinics founder Dr. Rob Tilley last fall. Staton has since put together a work group with Tilley, a number of other health care professionals, several sheriff’s office employees, and a fiscal analyst to explore the idea in depth.

Staton says a proposal will not be ready in time for the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners to consider as part of the next budget that takes effect July 1. He says the idea has only been discussed preliminarily with Kafoury and a number of commissioners, so far.

But more than that, Staton and work group members need to discuss it at length with potential partners, including Oregon corrections officials, other county sheriffs, district attorneys and judges in the region. Support from such partners is essential because some of them would have to contribute to the cost of opening and operating Wapato as such a program. Staton is convinced it would be in their best interests to support it, in large part because well-managed transitions from jail and prison can reduce repeat offenses.

“The thing that will make this work is getting everybody on board,” says Staton, who believes funds also would be available from the federal government.

Staton says such a program also could help reduce homelessness. Some of those currently living on the streets came out of jail and prison with no money, no counseling and no place to go.

But there is no guarantee state and regional governments will support the proposal, or have the money to fund it once the costs are known. In that case, Wapato could continue to be a drain on Multnomah County taxpayers for many years to come.

Wapato Jail construction costs

• County bonds for 210-bed jail and land: $30.7 million

• County bonds for two 175-bed alcohol and drug centers and land: $13.2 million

• State bonds for two 175-bed alcohol and drug centers and land: $10.8 million

• Interest earnings from bonds: $2.8 million

• Inverness Jail savings applied to new jail: $873,061

• Other miscellaneous funds: $22,195

Total construction costs: $58.4 million

Additional financing and maintenance costs

• Interest on county bonds paid to date: $23.5 million

• Additional interest when paid off (July 2016): $100,000

• Interest on state bonds paid to date: $3.8 million

• Additional interest when paid off (2030): $7.9 million

• Maintenance to date (average $400,000 multiplied by 11 years): $4.4 million*

• Additional maintenance when all bonds paid off ($500,000 multiplied by 15 years): $7.5 million*

* Estimate based on available information

Total costs to date: $90.1 million

Total costs when all bonds paid off (2030): $105.6 million

Sources: Multnomah County and Oregon Department of Administrative Services