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Commissioners hail passage of county jail levy

Voters approved measure by narrow margin last week


by: FILE PHOTO - Columbia County Commissioner Tony HydeMembers of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners expressed their gratitude to county voters for approving an operating levy for the Columbia County Jail in the May 20 primary election at a Wednesday, May 28, board meeting.

County Commissioner Earl Fisher thanked voters and advocates for the measure, which will levy about 58 cents per $1,000 in assessed value in annual property taxes for the next three years, raising an anticipated $7.07 million to pay for jail operations.

But Fisher also expressed frustration over lingering skepticism of the jail situation and the county government’s commitment to public safety. The levy, which county officials said was a last-ditch effort to prevent the closure of the jail next month, passed by about 300 votes, according to unofficial results from the Columbia County Elections Department.

“I’m always amazed by people who still don’t believe that we have a crisis,” Fisher said.

Capacity at the jail to hold local offenders has dwindled over the past few years. For the past 11 months, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office has maintained just 25 beds at the jail for local inmates — down from 65 the previous year.

The levy is expected to quadruple the jail’s current capacity for local inmates.

The jail was built at the turn of the millennium with a 255-bed capacity. Voters approved a capital bond issue to pay for the facility’s construction in 1998, but the Board of Commissioners decided at that time not to place a funding measure for jail operations on the ballot.

A four-year operating levy option was defeated by a wide margin in last November’s election.

Tony Hyde, chairman of the Board of Commissioners and the only commissioner still serving who was on the board in 1998, said he was grateful voters backed this year’s levy.

“It’s incumbent upon us now, in the next three years, to find a better solution for continued operation of this facility,” said Hyde. “We have to find a different way, because this is too important of an issue to be relying upon three-year, serial levies. And it’s just something that needs to be a foundation of what we do.”

Hyde concluded, “A paradigm shift needs to happen.”

Earlier this year, the board passed an ordinance to establish a volunteer committee to oversee how money brought in by the jail levy is spent. Commissioners said in the days before the election that they will endeavor to appoint critics of the levy effort to fill some seats on the 10-member committee, with Commissioner Henry Heimuller going so far as to promise an appointment to Deer Island resident Jamie Maygra, one of the most outspoken levy skeptics.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first time the Board of Commissioners had met since Election Day on May 20.

The board typically meets every Wednesday, but its May 21 meetings were canceled due to a National Association of Counties conference in Anchorage, Alaska, that all three commissioners attended.