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Cautionary tales for Columbia County Jail

County's struggles with jail echo experience of other counties


by: FILE PHOTO - The Multnomah County Wapato Facility, a jail built at the same time the Columbia County Jail was constructed that has never been used. Both jails were built after voters approved bonds to cover construction costs without any levy for operating funds.Columbia County is not alone among Oregon counties as it wrestles with jail funding issues.

County voters are deciding whether to approve a $9.57 million levy to provide four years of increased funding for the Columbia County Jail — echoing decisions made by voters in Lane County earlier this year and neighboring Clatsop County last year.

Lane County voters approved an operating levy in May, increasing the county’s jail capacity to 256 beds for local offenders.

Like Columbia County, Lane County rents jail beds to outside agencies, including the United States Marshals Service, which pays $117.57 as the daily per-inmate rate and has 55 reserved beds. Eugene, the county’s largest city, reserves 15 beds.

None of Columbia County’s cities pay for beds at the jail, and the Columbia County Jail’s rental rate for federal beds is $78 per day.

Sgt. Carrie Carver, spokeswoman for the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, said county officials commissioned polling to determine what residents were willing to pay for the levy, and Sheriff Tom Turner criss-crossed the county as its advocate.

“We held community awareness meetings all over Lane County,” Carver recounted Monday, Oct. 28. “We sort of made it an open public forum — tell us what your concerns are, let us tell you where we’re at.”

Unlike law enforcement levies that failed in Curry and Josephine counties this spring, Lane County’s levy focused on adult and youth corrections, adding 131 adult and 16 youth beds.

“We don’t ever want to put something on the ballot that the community members don’t want,” said Carver, adding, “The people of Lane County were pretty firm that the jail was their first priority.”

Beds stretched thin in Clatsop

In Clatsop County, however, voters rejected a levy last spring that would have provided the county with money to expand its 60-bed jail, which Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin said is too small to accommodate the county’s needs.

Like Columbia County, Clatsop County uses a matrix system to determine which inmates to hold and which to release. Both convicted offenders and suspects are “scored” based on the severity of their charges, and low-scoring inmates are force-released in favor of holding those accused or convicted of more serious offenses.

Earlier this year, registered sex offender Mark Beebout was convicted of murdering two people in Portland after being force-released from the Clatsop County Jail under the matrix system. The case attracted national attention, with Bergin appearing on Fox News to discuss it.

“It turned out we didn’t do anything wrong,” Bergin said Monday, Oct. 21, recalling the case. “We did everything by the book. But that’s a perfect example of why you need the adequate jail space.”

Bergin is keeping an eye on the situation in Columbia County this fall.

“I just hope that the measure up there passes this time,” said Bergin. “Otherwise, oh boy, it’s going to be pretty dire.”

The Columbia County budget for this fiscal year slashed local capacity at the jail from 65 beds to 25 beds, keeping 85 beds reserved for U.S. Marshals inmates. County officials have said the jail may close if voters do not approve the operating levy Tuesday, Nov. 5.

But although Clatsop County is looking to increase its capacity and Columbia County is searching for a sustainable way to operate its 255-bed jail, the former has expressed little interest in renting beds in St. Helens or co-operating the jail.

“It would cost Clatsop County taxpayers well over $1 million a year to do transports and the housing, which we just can’t afford,” said Bergin.

Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde said Wednesday, Oct. 23, that he has reached out to his Clatsop County counterparts in searching for a new revenue source for the jail.

“We’re looking at everything, and we will continue to look at everything,” Hyde said. “Clatsop County doesn’t have jail space, they’re renting beds. We have offered more than once and we’ll continue to offer to build capacity for them, if they want to come and use our jail as a co-op, on a permanent basis, we’d be happy to have them.”

Hyde added, “And that may be a reality at some point, because clearly, they need a place for their prisoners ... and they’re at a point like we were 10 years ago, 15 years ago,” before the Columbia County Jail was built.

An email requesting comment from Peter Huhtala, who chairs the Clatsop County Board of County Commissioners, was not returned before press time.

Bergin said Clatsop County is satisfied with renting 10 beds from Tillamook County, instead of working with Columbia County to house its adult offenders. He acknowledged the Columbia County Jail has enough capacity to accommodate his county’s inmates, but he said St. Helens is too far from its coastal population centers to be practical.

“If anybody should be buying beds, it should be Multnomah County from y’all,” Bergin said.

Excess capacity, high costs

in Multnomah County

Multnomah County, however, already has more jail capacity than it can handle.

At about the same time that the Columbia County Jail was built, Oregon’s most populous county spent some $58 million to construct the Multnomah County Wapato Facility — a 525-bed jail in north Portland that has never housed an inmate since opening in 2004.

“There was a 1996 voter-approved bond measure to build the jail,” said Multnomah County spokesman Dave Austin on Tuesday, Oct. 29. “It was put before voters. They approved it. The problem was, they didn’t approve operating money, so when the jail was built and when it opened in 2004, there were not enough dollars to operate the jail, to staff it.”

Wapato was conceived and built as a way to handle anticipated high demand for jail beds during the 1990s, Austin explained.

“There was a concern that crime rates were rising, et cetera, et cetera, but as we know now, crime has gone down,” Austin said.

Now Multnomah County is trying to figure out what to do with the unused jail, which costs more than $300,000 per year in upkeep. Austin said it might be used in the future if the county can secure operating funds, but he seemed to doubt it would be needed.

“Anything’s possible, but again, with crime being where it is and our other facilities are able to handle the load, you know, the question that the Board [of County Commissioners] has to ask is, ‘Well, do we open this jail when there’s not really a use for it and take away from other services?’” Austin said.

Columbia County officials have said that if the jail closes and the county is forced to rent beds from other counties, it will likely rule out Multnomah County due to high bed rental costs.

Instead, county inmates may end up bunking with Clatsop County’s inmates after all — in the Tillamook County Jail.

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