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Will Columbia County embrace another jail levy?

County officials mull jail levy renewal, though current finances leave them few options

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Gery Fiebich, a corrections deputy at the Columbia County Jail, unloads a meal cart for inmates. Fiebich is one of several jail deputies hired after the county approved of a three-year levy to fund jail operations.

Columbia County officials are waiting to review jail levy revenue before deciding whether to put another property tax levy on the ballot this year to help fund jail operations.

If another levy is proposed, it would be the third jail levy pitched to voters since 2013.

Tony Hyde, chairman of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, said the board will likely look at revenue numbers to see if they can hold out another year before approaching voters again.

“We’ll probably know in the next 30 days or so,” Hyde said.

“The beauty of it is, we’re pretty close to having the jail paid off, so that levy amount won’t be on the taxpayers’ backs anymore.”

The 255-bed jail was built following passage of a 20-year, $13.9 million construction levy in 1998.

The Columbia County Jail in St. Helens was slated to close in 2014 if voters didn’t approve a new revenue stream to fund it, said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson. Voters rejected a jail levy in November 2013, but later approved the same measure in May 2014. The levy was expected to generate $7.07 million to float jail operations through the 2016-17 fiscal year.

In addition to the levy and county funding, the jail receives reimbursements from the federal government for holding federal prisoners.

Dickerson said because the jail is required to have roughly the same number of staff on a shift whether beds are filled or not, having extra revenue from the U.S. Marshals Service adds to the jail’s revenue with negligible impacts to its costs.

He noted that the Sheriff’s Office receives 25 percent of the county’s general fund budget each year, but that isn’t enough to fund regular enforcement patrols and jail operations.

Before levy money started trickling in to the county, the jail was on a matrix system, frequently releasing inmates shortly after they were arrested. Many offenders served only days of their court sentences because the jail lacked staffing capacity to hold inmates, Dickerson said.

“The criminal justice system works when you have a functioning jail,” Dickerson said. “We haven’t force-released anybody since May. It’s all because we have money to keep the jail open.”

The commissioners have said in the past that they hoped the county would be able to attract new industry or economic growth to offset the need for future levies. That hasn’t exactly happened.

On the south end, Scappoose is poised for modest new retail growth, but to the north, in Clatskanie, the petroleum industry is winding down and cutting jobs.

The prospect of another levy might be inevitable.

“It’s a decision [the commissioners are] gonna have to make again because I don’t see that the commissioners are gonna come up with an extra $2 million any other way,” Dickerson said.

Hyde and fellow commissioners know it won’t go over easily.

“Anytime you have a levy it’s a challenge,” Hyde said. “There’s no doubt about that, but I think we went from an average of 25 local inmates to 85, which means we’re not cycling them out.”