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High expectations would follow jail levy effort

Columbia County officials have little to lose by going out for an operating levy for the jail in May.

In fact, if they play their cards right, the county could gain a revenue stream to maintain operation of the jail.

The county commissioners are now looking for a modest show of public support prior to agreeing to go after taxpayer-supported funding to keep the Columbia County Jail open. Officials, including the Columbia County commissioners and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, have said the jail is likely to close by June 30 without a fresh revenue stream. With a tight timeline to leap all of the bureaucratic hurdles necessary to place a citizen’s initiative on the ballot (see “Jail levy may get another shot after all,” page A1), it is going to take action from the commissioners.

But the larger question is, what would the jail levy campaign look like if, indeed, the initiative does hit the ballot?

Columbia County voters in November dismissed a $9.57 million operating levy that would have funded the jail for four years. The margin was not inconsequential — 5,092 people voted for it, while 7,119 turned it down.

Those are daunting numbers to reverse, but it’s certainly not an impossible task.

There were glaring factors we believe led to the overwhelming opposition to the levy. Not only was there not a visible campaign, the county officials we would expect to champion the levy remained mum on the very difficult conversation regarding the history of the jail and why it finds itself in dire straits today.

Also not addressed was a clear presentation of what county corrections would look like without the jail. There has been wide speculation the absence of a jail would be a beacon to would-be criminals that Columbia County is ripe for the picking. If that is the case, let’s see those scenarios.

As the local newspaper with the resources to tackle many of these issues, we, too, will do our part.

If the county commissioners agree to place an initiative on the ballot, we would like to see a very visible, active campaign orchestrated by the commissioners and the sheriff to fully educate the community about the jail, including addressing what are perceived as past mistakes, long-term prospects, alternatives to having a jail and the anticipated effect on the county from not having a jail. Like it or not, the county officials and sheriff are the keepers of that knowledge. It is their duty to get the word out, to foster other champions and take the message as deep into the community as is possible.

Present to your constituents. Hold multiple town hall meetings. Visit all local media, including newspapers and radio stations. Get your story on TV.

As addressed in an editorial last October (“Questions thwart jail levy endorsement,” Oct. 25), the county’s long-term financial fate is tied to its ability to attract new industry and business. Last week we reported the prospect for a $1 billion methanol plant at Port Westward. The county only recently saw $3.27 million in additional tax revenue hit the rolls from Portland General Electric’s natural gas-fired electricity generating plant, also at Port Westward.

This is how the county will free itself from the shackles of tax levies for long-term revenue to support public services. It’s going to take time to get there.

For now, an operating levy might just be the county’s best option to buy peace of mind by keeping the jail open as a public safety resource for the community.

But first you have to sell it.

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