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County officials pitch jail levy at public forums

$7M measure is before voters in May 20 election


by: MARK MILLER - Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson lays out the situation with the Columbia County Jail at a town hall meeting in Columbia City on Thursday, May 1. He said his office is preparing to close the jail as early as next month unless voters approve a $7.07 million property tax levy to pay for it.Columbia County officials spoke at public forums in Columbia City and St. Helens recently as part of their final push for a levy option they say is the last chance to avert the planned closure of the Columbia County Jail next month.

Tax levies to support the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office have not fared well with voters in the past. Supporters of the levy option before voters this month are trying to frame the vote this time as a referendum on the jail itself.

“If you want a jail ... vote yes,” said County Commissioner Earl Fisher at a town hall meeting in the Columbia City Community Hall on Thursday, May 1. “If you don’t want a jail, vote no.”

Fisher and his fellow commissioners have made it clear the jail will close unless the levy is approved. They are already preparing to lay off jail employees and transfer the 10 inmates who have been accused or convicted of the most serious offenses to the Polk County Jail, they said.

“At the end of the day, there is no cavalry out there,” Fisher said. “We take care of ourselves, or we don’t.”

by: MARK MILLER - Brady Preheim inveighs against the levy option at a public forum in St. Helens on Wednesday, May 7. He said he does not trust the county's numbers on the Columbia County Jail's financial situation and does not believe county officials are taking feedback and suggestions from the public seriously.Sheriff Jeff Dickerson and the county commissioners faced skepticism and even outright hostility from some attendees, with St. Helens resident Brady Preheim accusing county officials of lying about the costs of operating the jail.

“You previously had put on your website and said that the cost [to house an inmate per day] was $94.65,” Preheim said in Columbia City. “That was your number, not my number. And suddenly, that number has disappeared. How come?”

“Because it confused people like you, Brady, to tell you the truth,” Dickerson retorted.

Dickerson and the commissioners have made little effort to conceal their exasperation with arguments about the per-inmate daily cost of operating the jail, which currently exceeds the $78 the U.S. Marshals Service pays to rent each jail bed for one night. They say the vast majority of operating costs at the facility, such as staffing and utility expenses, are fixed — regardless of how many inmates are being housed at the jail — and assert that per-inmate costs would be significantly lower if the jail was fuller.

At the public forum in St. Helens City Hall on Wednesday, May 7, several meeting attendees, like St. Helens resident Ray Scholl, spoke in favor of the levy. Scholl outlined a number of scenarios in which the county only has 10 jail beds to use and police catch people committing various felonies.

“Say Preheim’s house is getting broken into, and you guys catch him red-handed in his house, would he be arrested [and jailed] that night, or would he be cited and released?” Scholl asked St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss pointedly.

“That’d be a cite-and-release,” Moss responded. “Unless, for some reason which I can’t foresee, he made it into the top 10, which a burglary’s probably never going to get that person there, that’s a cite-and-release.”

“So the levy is important to be able to house these people who break into these people’s houses, steal their property, beat them up — correct?” Scholl asked.

“Correct,” said Moss.

If approved, the levy would raise property taxes by about 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed value and is expected to raise $7.07 million over three years if it is approved. All revenue would go toward the jail.

Under a recent county ordinance, an advisory committee would be appointed to oversee how jail funds are spent if voters approve the levy.