County commissioners direct staff to prep ballot title

As local officials brace for the Columbia County Jail’s capacity to be slashed due to lack of funding next month, county commissioners directed staff Wednesday to prepare ballot language for a property tax levy to fund the facility.

Commissioner Earl Fisher said the jail, which will go from 65 beds for local use down to 25 starting July 1, does not have enough capacity to meet the county’s needs as it is.

“If we don’t get the levy, there is no reason to think that we will be able to keep the jail open after next year,” Fisher said. “I think that would just be a disaster.”

The other two commissioners agreed.

“The bottom line is that we have to fund the jail,” Commissioner Henry Heimuller said.

Heimuller added, “None of us likes to pay more taxes. None of us likes to go out and ask for more taxes. Lord knows that. But on the other side of it, I want to live in a community where I know that folks aren’t getting arrested and the officers take them into the jail and they’re booked or released, or worse yet, they get booked and then they go through the whole process, and despite the efforts of our judges and our juries and all of those folks that work to put people behind bars, we end up having to matrix them out because we just simply can’t house them.”

Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said earlier this month that the county is on track to release 700 inmates this year due to lack of funding.

During a break in the meeting, Heimuller said he expects the levy will be about 57 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. For a home assessed at $200,000 in property value, that would be $114 per year.

For the amount of that levy, the jail could have as many as 100 beds available for local use, Heimuller said.

“Once the ballot title’s established, those numbers will be in concrete,” said Heimuller. “Maybe a penny one way or the other on that number, and maybe 5 or 10 percent on the bed number.”

The county government will mount an “aggressive campaign” to persuade voters to approve the levy in November, Heimuller predicted.

“I think we can demonstrate a direct need, and I think we can demonstrate that this is the path that we have no choice but to take,” Heimuller said.

Voters in Lane County last month approved a similar levy for their county jail.

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