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Jail levy committee presents first budget

Oversight committee talks next levy as finances locked in for 2015; jail now holding 68 local inmates

COURTNEY VAUGHN - Michelle Vandenberg, a jail deputy with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, checks on inmates in a pod during her shift at the Columbia County Jail. The Sheriff's Office is in the process of hiring more deputies with money it received from a jail levy passed in May 2014.

As the county prepares to craft a budget with its first cycle of jail levy funding, talk of another levy is already in the air.

Columbia County’s Jail Operating Citizens Advisory Committee met Tuesday, April 14, to finalize its jail budget for presentation to the county.

With nearly $2.24 million in levy money received from property taxes, another $1 million from the county’s budget and more than $1.26 million in funds from holding prisoners for the federal government, the county jail anticipates $5.24 million in revenue.

It’s more than the sheriff expects to spend in fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1. Revenues will outpace jail expenses by a little more than $2 million, according to the budget document. Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said the reason is because the jail has yet to hire all of the staff it needs.

As more jail deputies are hired, the jail can make more beds available to local inmates, rather than releasing people who are arrested for crimes early, as the jail currently does.

Dickerson and county officials are confident the levy will provide the money needed to keep more inmates in custody, but the funding mechanism is a temporary solution.

During the JOCAC’s monthly meeting Tuesday, Dickerson and a handful of committee members danced around talks of “another levy.”

Dickerson suggested polling county residents on their perceptions of jail operations and the levy.

“As far as the potentiality of even doing polling, of reaching out to the community and trying to get a sense of where we’re at,” he said. “That may be something well ahead of the campaign for another levy, the county may want to consider.”

The possibility of a renewed levy effort was also discussed by Rita Bernhard, a JOCAC member and former Columbia County commissioner, along with current Columbia County Board of Commissioners Chairman Henry Heimuller.

Heimuller suggested an informative newsletter mailed to households, to keep residents apprised of how money is being spent and how jail operations are now being handled.

Heimuller lauded the committee the next morning during the weekly Board of Commissioners meeting.

“I really feel like over the last couple of months that they’re really developing the machinery necessary moving forward,” Heimuller said of JOCAC. “They’re asking good fiscal questions. They’re also asking good operation questions.”

The committee was presented with a copy of the most recent Oregon State Sheriff’s Association inspection of the county jail, which, aside from a few minor non-compliance issues, garnered positive feedback from the inspector.

“The inmates were well behaved and cared for,” the inspection memo states. “Staff members were professional, cooperative and knowledgeable. ... We found your facility to be operating well within the guidelines of the Oregon Jail Standards.”

While no one explicitly advocated for another levy, the subject was difficult to ignore.

After initially rejecting a jail funding measure, county voters approved a three-year, $7.1 million jail operating levy last May.

The levy was proposed as a solution to keep the jail open. After the levy passed, Columbia County commissioners appointed residents to oversee the expenditure of levy funds.

Dickerson said if there are leftover funds after three years, those can be used toward operating the jail a little longer, but operating costs are expected to go up each year.

The levy approved by voters is expected to float jail operations for about three years, but the county has yet to identify a stable funding source beyond that.

So far, money received from the election measure has helped increase the number of inmates the jail can hold, as well as the length of time they are held.

“People are making their court dates, which is important,” Dickerson told the committee.

“We have been slowly adding staff and are currently holding 68 local inmates — A far cry more than the 25 we were holding last year at this time, or the 10 we would have held in outside jails if the levy would have failed,” Dickerson later stated via email. “It’s amazing what could happen if you just have a little bit of capacity. ... Our goal is to get it up to 100 [beds]. That’s what we’re marching toward.”