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Contingency plans being made for jail closure

Columbia County, St. Helens could make separate agreements with outside jails


MossHydeBoth Columbia County and St. Helens law enforcement agencies are preparing for the impending closure of the Columbia County Jail.

St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss said Wednesday, Feb. 5, that he has spoken with the commander of the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities, or NORCOR, in The Dalles about the possibility of St. Helens reserving bed space at that jail if the Columbia County Jail closes.

Meanwhile, a proposed intergovernmental agreement between Columbia and Polk counties would see the latter county house up to 12 inmates from Columbia County at its jail, Columbia County commissioners were told Wednesday.

Sarah Hanson, legal counsel to the Board of County Commissioners, said the terms of the agreement provide for 10 beds to be reserved at the Polk County Jail in Dallas for inmates from Columbia County, at a daily rate of $650 — $65 per bed. Up to two additional jail beds would be available at a higher daily rate of $75, as needed and if the jail has the capacity.

Moss said Polk County does not have the jail space for a separate agreement with St. Helens, leaving NORCOR — which is offering the same $65 daily rate for each jail bed and is about the same driving distance from St. Helens as the Polk County Jail, but can be a more treacherous commute in the winter — as the most appealing alternative.

NORCOR is a regional jail that serves four counties in northern Oregon and provides jail space for several other counties in Oregon and Washington.

Against the backdrop of planning at the county and city level for the demise of the Columbia County Jail is the possibility that a levy to keep the jail open for at least three more years could end up on the May 20 primary ballot.

Voters rejected a four-year operating levy last November, and county commissioners initially said they would not try again this spring. But they have suggested they will reconsider if there is public support for a second levy campaign this month.

But Moss said St. Helens cannot afford a wait-and-see approach.

“Worst-case scenario, the levy fails in May, we’ve got about a month and a half to figure out what we’re going to do,” said Moss. “We can’t wait until June 30 to have this all carved in stone.”

If the levy fails to materialize, Moss said, “The St. Helens police would establish an agreement with NORCOR if ... the city could somehow secure the funding.”

Moss said the closure of the Columbia County Jail, which currently provides bed space for up to 25 local inmates, “would absolutely cripple our municipal court and its ability to function.” St. Helens needs a place to jail suspected and convicted criminals who are not among “the top 10 bad guys in Columbia County,” he argued.

Renting beds from NORCOR would probably require a municipal levy, Moss noted. He said that if St. Helens anticipates it will need four jail beds, matching the number of inmates he said it averages at the Columbia County Jail, the cost to the city to have those beds reserved at NORCOR and pay for somebody to transport inmates back and forth between St. Helens and The Dalles — approximately a two-hour drive — would be about $220,000 per year. That amount would scale up to about $450,000 for 10 beds.

“That’s a question of how much funding could we come up with and how much could we afford,” Moss said of the number of beds St. Helens could reserve.

While a potential agreement between St. Helens and NORCOR is only in the discussion phase, the draft agreement between Columbia and Polk counties has been approved by Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson and Polk County officials, Hanson told the Board of County Commissioners Wednesday.

At the behest of Commissioners Earl Fisher and Henry Heimuller, the board delayed action on the agreement until next Wednesday, Feb. 12.

If the board approves it, the agreement will be effective April 1, but Columbia County will need to give 30 days’ notice before the jail space is reserved, Hanson said.

“Even if we sign it, this doesn’t lock us into renting the beds,” Commissioner Tony Hyde clarified.

The Columbia County Jail will close by the end of June unless additional funding is secured, county officials have warned. The agreement with Polk County would allow the commissioners to notify their counterparts in Dallas by the start of June, anticipating the imminent closure of the Columbia County Jail, that they wish to begin reserving beds at the Polk County Jail. The beds would then become available 30 days later, under the terms negotiated between Dickerson and Polk County.

Columbia County has also reached out to NORCOR, according to Hanson.

“The Community Corrections folks have been discussing using bed space at NORCOR,” Hanson said. “The sheriff would also like to have the availability to place inmates there if there isn’t sufficient space at Polk County.”

Dickerson told the Spotlight Thursday that he has not spoken with NORCOR officials directly, but he said if the county can afford to rent jail beds there as well as at the Polk County Jail, it could be a useful option.

But Dickerson added, “Based on my conversations so far with the finance director, we’re going to be hard-pressed to find money just to rent beds down in Polk County.”

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