Sheriff: Jail may close this year without levy

by: FILE PHOTO - County officials plan to ask property owners in November to approve an operating levy of 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to support the jail. County commissioners voted Wednesday, Aug. 7, to place a property tax levy on the November ballot to fund the Columbia County Jail, an action commissioners say is necessary to keep the jail open.

Voters will decide whether to approve the local option tax levy — approximately a $58 annual tax increase per $100,000 of assessed property value over the levy’s four-year span.

“It is becoming more and more crucial every day that this levy be passed,” County Commissioner Earl Fisher declared after the ballot question was approved.

The county estimates the levy would raise $9.57 million across the next four fiscal years. Those funds would be used to operate the jail, which decreased its prisoner capacity from 65 beds for local inmates to just 25 beds last month.

If the levy passed, the jail’s capacity would increase to 100 beds for local inmates.

The jail has been forced to release several inmates early every week due to its reduced capacity, to the dismay of Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson.

Dickerson said the jail could be forced to close by the end of the year if the levy is not passed.

“It’s coming down to whether voters want to have a jail or not,” Dickerson said Wednesday afternoon, after the commissioners’ meeting. “We’ve done the best we can to keep the jail solvent by going outside and renting beds and doing what we can to run what really is effectively a small city.”

Right now, the jail is largely supported by the United States Marshals Service, which rents inmate beds from the county. Even if the levy passes, Dickerson said, the county will rely on about $1.7 million per year from the Marshals.

Voters in Columbia County have been resistant to property tax levies for law enforcement in the past. Dickerson said he is not going to be involved in campaigning for the levy because he wants to respect the will of the voters.

“I support the levy because I live in this county, and I believe to not have a jail would be a very dangerous thing for our county,” said Dickerson. But, he added, he plans to be ready with an alternative plan in case the levy fails. In that case, inmates could be sent to rented beds in Polk or Yamhill counties, he said.

The levy question will appear on Columbia County voters’ ballots this fall. Election Day this year falls on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

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