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St. Helens, Scappoose officials split on jail levy

St. Helens City Council backs levy; Scappoose councilors take no action


City councils in both Scappoose and St. Helens were asked by the campaign for a Columbia County Jail operating levy to support the ballot measure this month.

Their responses could hardly have been more different.

The St. Helens City Council unanimously adopted a resolution Wednesday, Oct. 16, supporting the passage of the $9.57 million levy in next month's general election.

But on Monday, Oct. 21, Scappoose city councilors responded to Councilor Donna Gedlich's motion to adopt a similar resolution with silence. The motion died without a second, leaving the Scappoose City Council with no formal stance on the levy.

“I was a little surprised nobody made a second,” said Scappoose Mayor Scott Burge on Wednesday, Oct. 23. “But past councils didn't take positions on those types of issues.”

“There are several on the council that don't support it, and some on the fence,” said Scappoose City Councilor Barb Hayden Tuesday. “Myself, I don't know whether I support it or not. I'm on the fence. I think it needs to be run more like a business. I know it's important and I think we need it, but in these economic times, people can't afford to have their taxes raised.”

Supporters of the levy say the jail is likely to close if voters fail to approve the measure, which may increase property taxes by more than 3 percent.

If the jail closes, St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss said during a St. Helens City Council work session Wednesday, he does not believe the St. Helens Police Department has the capacity to regularly transport prisoners to jails in other counties, meaning it would have to release many suspected offenders.

“We wouldn't have to do that many transports because only the most serious crimes are going to get that transport to Tillamook or Polk counties or wherever it is,” Moss said.

As St. Helens city councilors weighed a draft resolution, which St. Helens City Administrator John Walsh said had been submitted by levy supporters last week, Council President Doug Morten and Councilor Ginny Carlson expressed dismay over the compressed timeframe they had to consider it. The election is Nov. 5.

“I feel like I don't have enough time to gather the information I need to say 'yes' to this,” Carlson said.

Councilors Susan Conn and Keith Locke disagreed, saying they have already seen multiple presentations on the jail funding issue and believe the levy is needed to keep the jail open.

“I see impacts on the city if the jail closes that concern me, so I support the resolution,” Conn said.

Although Mayor Randy Peterson, who had already come out in support of the levy, appeared to have a majority of the five-member council in support of the resolution at the work session, he said he would prefer “total support” for any statement by the council providing advice to voters.

After making several tweaks to the resolution during the work session, the St. Helens City Council discussed it again at their evening meeting, but not before hearing from members of the public opposed to the levy.

Brady Preheim of Scappoose said he believes federal bed rentals, which county officials have said are vital to keeping the jail open, are a money-loser for the county. The bed rental rate per night is $16.65 less than what the Sheriff's Office estimates is the per-day cost of housing an inmate.

“My objection is to spending our resources to house federal prisoners,” Preheim told the council.

Nancy Ward, also of Scappoose, vented her frustration with local government in Columbia County over the jail levy and other issues.

“At every level in this county, we make our issues, we come to you, we present them and they don't get acted upon,” Ward said. “It's as though we don't make sense. And I thought everything that Mr. Preheim said made a lot of sense. And maybe it's not right, and if it's not, we need to know that. But we're not getting answers. People aren't answering us. All they do is say we're wrong.”

All five St. Helens city councilors voted in favor of a motion by Locke to adopt the resolution supporting the jail levy, although Carlson hesitated for several seconds before assenting, and Morten said he did so “with strong reservations.”

Hayden, the Scappoose city councilor, said if councilors in her city are not committed one way or another, they typically do not take a stance.