by Deborah Steele Hazen
At the request of citizens and community leaders throughout the county, the Columbia County commissioners agreed last week to place a jail operations bond on the May ballot.
The proposed local option levy is for three years and would cost approximately 58 cents per $1,000 of valuation – $58 for a $100,000 property, twice that if you have a $200,000 valuation.
Contrary to what some members of the public believe, this is only the second time the voters have been asked to approve a levy specifically and only for operation of the jail.
The first time was last November, right after the property tax statements came out – not, in our opinion, a good time to put a tax levy before the voters. Within the boundaries of the Clatskanie Rural Fire Protection District, property tax statements showed an increase for all property owners because of the operating levy we had approved last May for staffing and equipment at the fire district.
What’s more, we don’t think the effort to inform the voters as to why the jail operating levy was (and is) necessary was strong enough.
To be clear, there have been several attempts over the years to pass tax levies for the sheriff’s department – primarily to fund rural patrols – under at least three different sheriffs. They have all failed.
But it was also stated very clearly – we reported it 16 years ago in this newspaper – that if the voters passed the levy to build the new jail, sooner or later we would need to pass a levy to operate it.
That time has long since come. We have not been operating the jail anywhere near capacity because of a shortage of funds, and during the last couple of years we have been releasing suspects and convicted criminals under a “matrix” system, which is designed to release the least dangerous inmates first. But, it should be noted, that all of those who are released under the matrix are being set free before their sentences or other guidelines recommend.
As the funding crisis has become worse and worse, it has gotten to the point that only the very worst are being held. Repeat burglars, who enter homes and other public and private properties and steal things, are booked and released immediately. Many of those people are hooked on drugs. That’s why they’re stealing, and that’s why they are also unpredictably dangerous.
Our inability to incarcerate them, also inhibits our ability to help them recover from their addictions, thus perpetuating the cycle of crime.
How Did We Get Here?
Why are we in this financial crisis?
Because of the recession, closing of businesses and industries, and new proposed industries not yet on the tax rolls; because of the continued decline of timber revenues and legislation drastically scaling down the federal O&C payments to timber-dependent counties, Columbia County’s unrestricted general fund has dropped – just since 2011 – from $11.7 million to $8.7 million, over a 25 percent decrease.
The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office is still getting approximately 25 percent of the county’s unrestricted (not legally obligated to other purposes) general fund, but that pie is a lot smaller than it used to be.
What’s more, contracted pay increases, health insurance rates and Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) costs have continued to go up.
The county commissioners have cut most departments to four days a week, but that isn’t keeping pace with the increased costs.
In this column in the Jan. 23rd issue, we suggested that the county look at several ways of saving money to reallocate towards keeping the jail open, including cutting out all rural patrols, the possible elimination of some other county departments or portions of departments, and the possible raising of fees such as surface mining fees and transient taxes.
After all of these issues and more were brought up and discussed at a meeting Jan. 30th in Clatskanie, we are now convinced that those measures are either not feasible or will not save/produce the necessary funds.
As we have written before, the ultimate solution to the problem of funding the county jail, rural sheriff’s patrols, and other county-wide and local service districts is to add high value industry.
The Portland General Electric (PGE) Port Westward Unit II should begin creating more revenues for the county and local service districts in the next year or so, through SIP (strategic investment program) payments.
The Amber Energy Morrow Pacific project – still bogged down in the permitting stage – will help. So will the Global Partners expansion of its oil shipments at Port Westward, also bogged down in permitting, and the retirement of the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery’s enterprise zone tax exemptions.
The $1 billion first phase of the Northwest Innovation Works LLC methanol manufacturing project at Port Westward will go a long way to eliminating local government funding problems, but it is just entering the permitting stage.
Assuming we pass the jail levy in May – and we must – it is possible we may need another short term levy until the valuation from these industries – and, hopefully, more – start pouring into the county’s coffers.
Those who prefer suburban housing sprawl to industrial growth should remember that – while more children help our schools which receive their state funding through a per student formula – the property taxes on the average home do not pay for all the other local government services that home requires. On the other hand, industrial properties pay much more than they require.
Questions Raised in Letter
Inside this edition is a letter to the editor from a Scappoose resident who brings up the old Columbia Health District controversy. A few points on that.
The Columbia Health District was not county-wide. It included the Scappoose, St. Helens, Columbia City and Deer Island areas, but did not include the Clatskanie, Rainier or Vernonia areas.
The county contracted with the health district to provide public health services, but it did not have control over how the district was run.
When the district was dissolved, under state law the county commissioners were required to hand over the property that had been purchased for the defunct hospital proposal to the jurisdiction it was in – in this case the City of St. Helens. If the county could have kept that property, or sold it, for the good of the county’s general fund, it would have.
It is not possible to remodel the jail in the basement of the county courthouse to meet current state and federal requirements – that is why we built the current jail in the first place.
There are numerous local, state and national candidates on the May ballot, which is not a “special election.” It is costing very little for the county to put the issue before the voters again.
The Cost of Not Passing the Jail Levy
In contrast, it will cost us all a great deal if it doesn’t pass.
If the levy doesn’t pass – or some other new source of funding doesn’t appear unexpectedly from out of the blue – the Columbia County Jail will close by June 30.
The city jails are not equipped to keep inmates for more than a few hours.
The county will be able to afford to rent 10 beds at the cheapest jail within driving distance – Polk County – a two-hour one-way drive from St. Helens – taking law enforcement officers off our streets.
Only the 10 worst perpetrators will be taken to Polk County, and we already have more than 10 dangerous criminals.
Others arrested in Columbia County, including domestic violence perpetrators, sexual abusers, burglars, etc., will be cited and released.
Perpetrators of crimes are already aware that the Columbia County Jail has a revolving door. The attitude that they can risk arrest without meaningful punishment will only get worse.
That will endanger everyone – including our law enforcment officers.
Citizens will attempt to protect themselves, and tragedies will follow.
It will make Columbia County a less attractive place for both residents and industries, thus endangering our ability to “grow out” of our funding problems.
The Columbia County jail operating levy is not about whether or not we like the current sheriff. It’s not about the county commissioners. It is not about the old Columbia Health District, or whether or not you support certain industries.
It’s about our safety – your safety, my safety, the safety of our children, and the people who dedicate their lives to trying to keep us safe.
We really have no choice.
Please join us in supporting the jail levy in May. Between now and then, please continue to educate yourselves, your family, friends and neighbors on what it will cost – in terms of safety and quality of life – if the jail closes.