22 January 2014 by Published in: Opinion No comments yet

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Stop Jail Closure

Editorial Comments

by Deborah Steele Hazen and Adam J. Wehrley

We urge all Columbia County residents to attend the town hall meeting with the board of county commissioners and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson which has been scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 30, at 6 p.m. in the library room at the Port of St. Helens building on SW Bryant Street in Clatskanie – the former middle school building, known to long-time local residents as the old high school.

The topic of the meeting is what to do about the funding problem which is threatening the continued operation of the Columbia County jail.

By Oregon law, a county sheriff has the responsibility to:

“(1) Arrest and commit to prison all persons who break the peace, or attempt to break it, and all persons guilty of public offenses.

“(2) Defend the county against those who, by riot or otherwise, endanger the public peace or safety.

“(3) Execute the process and orders of the courts of justice or of judicial officers, when delivered to the sheriff for that purpose, according to law.

“(4) Execute all warrants delivered to the sheriff for that purpose by other public officers, according to law.

“(5) Attend, upon call, the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Oregon Tax Court, circuit court, justice court or county court held within the county, and to obey its lawful orders or directions.”

As discussed by the Clatskanie City Council at a special meeting last week – see the story that begins on page 1 – the potential closing of the county jail is a major threat to the public peace and safety of all the citizens of Columbia County, not to mention the quality of life in Northwest Oregon. A downward spiraling quality of life is a discouragement to economic development and potential new residents.

Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl’s statement that without a jail we will become “a lawless county,” may sound a bit exaggerated, but it challenges us to think about what closing the jail would really mean.

Closing the jail – a fine facility that we are still paying for – would strip our law enforcement system, including all of the county’s city police departments, of their most vital tool for maintaining the peace and safety of our county. City police departments are not equipped or staffed to meet the legal requirements of keeping prisoners locked up.

If we can’t keep criminals off the street, our laws will become meaningless, law enforcement will be made impotent, restraining orders and stipulations of parole and probation will be ignored.

This power vacuum will attract more criminals from neighboring areas and embolden criminals already living within our communities. It has begun to happen already.

The suspects in a recent burglary spree in the Clatskanie area actually laughed as they were arrested, because they knew they were likely to beat the police officers back to Clatskanie as they were released out the revolving door of the under-staffed jail that has already been operating on a matrix release system.

How Did We Get Here?

How have we gotten into this mess? Rising costs and falling revenues. Personnel costs go up every year with salary and benefit increases. County revenues have fallen with the phasing out of the O&C timber revenues and the decline in property tax revenues with the “Great Recession.” The number of jail beds rented by the federal marshal’s office and the immigration service – which helped to cover the costs of supplying beds for local arrestees – have dropped significantly.

In November, Columbia County voters turned down a levy to operate the jail, which was placed on the ballot by the county commissioners, by a significant 5,092 to 7,119 margin.

According to a presentation given by Sheriff Dickerson at a recent meeting in St. Helens, a fully operational jail needs a staff of 25 at a cost of $4,791,453. There is available revenue of $2.9 million, which leaves a deficit of $1.9 million.

One of several scenarios developed by the sheriff would make up that gap by increasing outside-of-county bed rentals – an “iffy” prospect; increasing the sheriff’s office/jail share of the general fund from approximately 25 percent of the county’s general fund budget to 38 percent; having the cities “pitch in” for bed use, and possibly attempting to pass another jail levy.

We would like to make a point – articulated well by Mayor Pohl – about this misconception that the cities don’t “pitch in” their fair share for the operation of the jail. Every city property tax payer pays the same tax rate to the county’s general fund – and therefore the sheriff’s office and jail – as rural residents. Additionally, in-city residents also pay for our own police departments.

Having the cities “pitch in” for the jail beds they use amounts to double taxation for city dwellers. In our opinion, city residents are already subsidizing law enforcement in the rural areas when our officers respond to incidents  in the rural area because there are no sheriff’s deputies available to respond, and when rural criminals come into our cities.

Sheriff Dickerson’s other proposals involve renting 10 beds in the Polk County Jail in Dallas – which has the least expensive rates  of the available jails – but it is an over two-hour drive from Clatskanie. If our officers had to deliver prisoners to Dallas it would take them out of community – unable to protect us – for five hours.

The 10 beds would be used for the criminals deemed to be the most dangerous. Everyone else would be booked and released – an unacceptable situation.

If, for instance, the City of Clatskanie police officers break-up a domestic violence incident, and the violent party is cited and released. There is nothing to stop them from returning to the scene. Tragedy could follow, and the city could potentially be held liable.

On top of that, those other options presented by Sheriff Dickerson also involve increased shares of the county’s general fund – resulting in cuts in other county departments, and the cities pitching in to buy beds at the Polk County Jail.

The Answers

The ultimate answer is increasing the county’s tax base, and the best way to do that is by siting high valuation industry. Next year, the county and numerous other tax districts will begin receiving significant Strategic Investment Program (SIP) payments from the new Portland General Electric power plant at Port Westward.

If the Northwest Innovatiion Works LLC project announced on the front page comes to fruition it will eventually add $1.8 billion of new property tax valuation – that will be a huge benefit to the county and all the taxing district.

The promising expansion by Global Partners at Port Westward will produce more tax revenues.

In fact, Port Westward has the potential of being the cash cow for the entire county.

But, what do we do in the meantime?

We support Mayor Pohl’s call for a state attorney general’s opinion about whether the closure of the jail would violate the state mandate for the sheriff to adequately provide correctional facilities. We don’t consider 10 beds in Polk County adequate.

If the beds to house prisoners are so limited, the sheriff’s patrols – already so limited as to be ineffective in most parts of the county – ought to be eliminated and those funds dedicated to the jail.

We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again. We think the sheriff should operate the jail, provide security to the courts, serve civil papers – perform the duties that the law requires. But we believe the best way to deliver rural law enforcement is through districts – similar to fire districts – based in the various communities around the county.

We realize that the other county departments have already been cut to four days a week, but we think the county commissioners should weigh the importance of other services – such as the building inspector department, which can be contracted out – against the public peace and safety, and make some hard decisions that will result in keeping the jail operating until the revenues from new industry begin coming in.

We have also heard suggestions regarding a modest increase in the surface mining depletion fee to be dedicated to the jail and a transient room tax. We would urge the commissioners to give due consideration to those suggestions.

The possibility of privatizing the jail should be investigated.

Finally, we think the jail operating levy failed in part because of the economy, in part because of a lack of understanding of the consequences, and in part as a result of resentment because of some of the actions and decisions of the sheriff and his senior staff.

Perhaps, putting the jail levy back on the ballot should be considered, but we think it will take a big showing of support from the public to convince the commissioners to do that.

Please attend the meeting on Jan. 30.

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