Supporters, opponents lay out arguments as Nov. 5 election approaches

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The Columbia County Jail could close if voters do not approve a property tax increase on the November ballot to bolster county funding, according to the Columbia County Sheriffs Office and Board of County Commissioners.Voters in Columbia County this year are deciding whether to approve or reject a $9.57 million levy that would hike their property taxes in order to pay for four years of continued Columbia County Jail operations, increasing the number of jail beds available for local inmates in the process.

To many levy supporters in the county government, the choice is clear.

“I hate to say 100 percent sure, but if we don't get some sort of additional funding, then the jail will close,” Undersheriff Andy Moyer, who is in charge of the jail, said Monday, Oct. 21. “I don't know how long it will take, but the jail will close.”

But Scappoose resident Brady Preheim, who is leading the campaign against the proposed levy, isn't buying the county's arguments.

“I don't really believe it's going to close,” Preheim said Tuesday of the jail. “I think it's fearmongering.”

Competing claims

Preheim said he has identified a number of “inconsistencies” in the arguments for the levy, from both the campaign website — not to be confused with Preheim's, which lays out Preheim's case against the ballot measure — and the Sheriff's Office website.

One of the most substantial disagreements between Preheim and other levy opponents and Moyer and other levy supporters is over the federal inmates who are housed at the jail.

While cities in Columbia County do not pay the county to house local inmates, the federal government does pay $78 per day for each inmate held at the jail. Still, that figure is $16.65 less than the $94.65 the Sheriff's Office calculates is the daily cost of each inmate, both federal and local.

Moyer and his boss, Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, have said federal dollars are vital to jail operations.

“There's no way for us to keep the jail open, period, without that $2 million from the feds,” Moyer said, referring to the $2.1 million in federal revenue for which the Sheriff's Office has budgeted during this fiscal year. He said the county's $1.17 million contribution is not even enough to cover the cost of jail personnel this year, and federal revenues are needed for the jail to pay for its fixed costs.

The federal government also pays certain costs associated with federal inmates, such as transportation costs, overtime for deputies who must work extra hours due to federal inmates and certain medical costs, according to Moyer.

But Preheim said he believes the federal bed rentals are a money-loser for the county. While he said he accepts the argument Dickerson has made that federal revenue is needed to cover jail costs at its reduced capacity — the number of local beds was cut from 65 to 25 in July, with the number of beds reserved for federal inmates remaining at 85 — he does not think it bolsters the argument for the ballot measure.

“That's true at 25 beds. If the levy passes, that's not true, so why are we keeping them?” Preheim asked rhetorically.

According to the Sheriff's Office website, per-inmate costs last year were as low as $65.75 per day. Moyer said costs will drop below the rental rate again if the levy is passed and the jail has the funding to add back 75 beds for local inmates. He said the jail has a number of fixed costs, such as staff and contractor pay and utility bills, that are virtually unaffected by changes in inmate population.

“If our levy passes, the very first year of our budgeting with a passed levy, I guarantee you our cost per inmate is going to be way down to somewhere between the $50 to $70 range,” Moyer said.

Budget stretched thin

The county has cut funding for the Columbia County Sheriff's Office over the past several years due to declining revenues amid the economic recession.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Office has reduced its staffing on the law enforcement side to keep resources at the jail.

“Now we're at a point where there's nothing left to cut on the enforcement side,” Moyer said.

Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde said the jail has not been singled out as the county has slashed its budget over the past several years.

“We haven't reduced the funding by the percentage, but as we shrink, we shrink collectively,” Hyde said Wednesday.

The jail has been releasing low-level suspended and convicted offenders early to make room for inmates whose detention is considered a higher priority. Dickerson has said the Sheriff's Office simply cannot afford to hold every person who is arrested in the county.

Constraints on the jail's bed capacity have nothing to do with its size.

The facility in south St. Helens opened in 2001 with a capacity of 255 inmate beds, after voters approved a $13.9 million bond to fund its construction in 1998.

Preheim said he thinks the Columbia County Board of County Commissioners was “duped” into building a bigger jail than what the county needed or could afford, based on contemporary projections of the capacity the county would need 20 years from then.

“They didn't build a 50-bed jail or a 100-bed jail, you know, double or triple our capacity,” Preheim said. “They went from a 39-bed jail to a [255-bed jail].”

According to Hyde, the county commissioners at the time wanted to avoid repeating the problem with the old jail in the Columbia County Courthouse basement, which Hyde said was too small for the county even at the time it was built.

“What we built was what was anticipated to be the growth pattern over a 20- to 30-year period,” said Hyde, the only incumbent commissioner who served on the board during the initial bond campaign. “When you're talking about initial construction, what does it cost to build bigger, it wasn't significantly more as compared to what would be if you waited that long.”

Hyde said the county held off on asking voters to approve operating funds for the jail at the time because “we did not know what that number was going to be.”

“From my perspective, I couldn't make up this voodoo number,” Hyde said. “I had to know what that cost was before I could, straight face, go back to the public and say, 'We need to increase our operating capital.'”

Uncertain future

Now that the jail is built and the county is struggling to pay for it, Preheim said that while he is advocating a “no” vote on passing the operating levy, he does not have an alternative idea about what to do.

“I've had people ask me that, and I don't have a proposal,” said Preheim, who added that he wants to see alternate proposals to the $9.57 million levy put on the table. “All I'm doing is looking at their numbers. So I don't have one. I just don't think that it's worth $10 million.”

Hyde, a Republican, said repeatedly Wednesday that he does not want to “tax-and-spend” to keep the jail afloat, even though he supports the levy.

“This is a Band-Aid. The real issue is we have to grow our way out of this,” Hyde said.

As for what happens in 2018, when the proposed levy would expire, Hyde said, “Well, I would like to think that the general fund has become robust enough that it could absorb the difference.”

Preheim predicted the levy will fail by almost a two-to-one margin next month. But he said he expects the county will try to put in on the ballot next May if it is defeated this year — something Hyde said was “highly likely,” although he added the commissioners have yet to discuss it.

“My hope is that when the levy gets defeated, that they will then take that opportunity to have some conversation, and not just want to have a pep rally,” Preheim said. “Have them admit their past errors and talk about what they can do to fix it.”

Even if the levy fails, Moyer said, the jail should be funded through this fiscal year, provided the United States Marshals Service — the primary federal agency renting beds from the county — does not abruptly pull out. Moyer said he cannot be sure how long it might stay open beyond that point.

“All those costs continue to go up every year, and we have taken a hit,” said Moyer. “It's on a non-sustainable path at this point.”

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