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County voters spare jail, stepping back from brink

Levy appears to pass with 2.6-point margin in favor


by: MARK MILLER - The Columbia County Jail, which will remain open instead of closing next month, due to voters' passage of a last-ditch property tax levy to fund it for the next three years.A $7.07 million measure to fund three years of operations at the Columbia County Jail passed in the Tuesday, May 20, election with a slim majority of voters in favor, unofficial results indicate.

After trailing in the first batch of results posted by the Columbia County Elections Department at 8:02 p.m. Tuesday, “yes” on the property tax levy moved into a narrow lead. By the time ballot-counting wrapped up at 3:39 a.m. Wednesday, the levy appeared to have passed with about 51.3 percent of voters in favor.

“I'm thrilled,” said Susan Conn, a St. Helens city councilor and leader in the “Don't Bail on the Jail" levy campaign. “I'm happy that the people of Columbia County valued public safety and demonstrated it.”

A similar levy option that would have provided four years of funding for the jail failed with 58.3 percent voting “no” last November.

Conn said she feels pro-levy campaigners did a better job this year of conducting voter outreach.

County officials said in the days leading up to the vote that they were preparing to shut down the jail by the end of next month if the May levy did not pass. The county's 10 highest-priority inmates would have likely been transferred to the Polk County Jail in Dallas.

The measure will levy about 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on Columbia County landowners annually.

It is expected to allow the Columbia County Sheriff's Office to increase bed capacity for local offenders at the jail from 25 to 100.

Fire bond appears to fail

In the other money measure decided by county voters in Tuesday's election, the $15 million general obligation bond issue for Columbia River Fire & Rescue was narrowly rejected, the unofficial final tally shows.

About 50.4 percent of voters on the bond measure voted “no.”

Fire Chief Jay Tappan called the outcome “a soft 'no,'” suggesting the thin margin of defeat left the door open to another effort in a year or two.

“Clearly, we're disappointed. We had hoped that we would get that passed,” Tappan said. But he said he believed being on the same ballot as the jail levy negatively impacted the bond measure, even though fire district officials were careful not to frame the vote as a competition between the two measures.

“We're taking it with a little bit of a grain of salt and making plans for another go maybe sometime downstream,” said Tappan, adding, “I think if the results were such that we had a large 'no' vote on it, we probably wouldn't be making any plans at all for quite a while. But this was a close run.”

Columbia County Elections Supervisor Pam Benham said there are still uncounted ballots in the race. But with 48 votes separating “no” from “yes” on the bond measure, it is unlikely the outcome of the vote will change.

Election results must be certified by June 9.

A third measure on the primary ballot, revising the city charter for Columbia City, was approved by 78.8 percent of voters, according to the county's tally.

Voter turnout was recorded at 43.8 percent, slightly higher than the turnout for last November's election, at which the unsuccessful four-year jail levy option was the only contest on the ballot. Participation in the May jail levy vote was 42.1 percent, with 485 voters who cast a ballot not voting on the measure.

Oregon voters approved a “double majority” requirement for local tax increases in the 1990s that would have required voter turnout of at least 50 percent in order for the measure to be able to pass. However, that requirement was waived for May and November elections by Measure 56, which passed in 2008.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.