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County officials sign off on jail bed reductions

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Deputies keep an eye on jail operations at a centeral room in the middle of the jail with a wrap-around view of inmate quarters and video of outside hallways.The county officials have pushed forward with a plan to reduce the number of local beds available at the Columbia County Jail from 65 to 25, approving the reduction at a meeting June 12.

Now, planning for a future of increasing costs and decreasing revenue, county officials are trying to figure out how to pass an operational levy in November to keep the jail in business. The proposed four-year levy would charge approximately 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value and the money would go to fund jail operations. Similar levies have failed in the past.

But, said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, there are few options left.

“We’ve done what we could,” he said, referencing cuts and changes made to both jail and patrol operations. “We have no more cuts we can make to staff on either side of the ledger.”

Last budget cycle, the jail cut five employees and compensated for the loss by cross-training patrol deputies. Currently, the Sheriff’s Office has nine patrol deputies also qualified to work in the jail. Even if additional cuts were made to the patrol side of operations, “we’d still have the budgets problems,” Dickerson said. “It takes more than people to manage the jail.”

Medical and food costs are huge, he said.

Though local bed capacity will technically be set at 25 beds, the real number is closer to 16 to 17 after factoring in beds reserved for people who violate their probation. These eight to nine beds for local probationary offenders are paid for by state corrections funds. The jail will also retain 85 beds for U.S. Marshall prisoners. The jail relies heavily on the money collected from renting out these beds, Dickerson said.

Meanwhile, the reduced number of local beds means local offenders will likely spend less and less time behind bars. The jail already operates on a matrix system that prioritizes offenders and, when the jail begins to reach capacity, releases the lesser offenders to make room for the more serious offenders.

“Nobody that’s been released has done anything horrible yet,” said Judge Jennifer Grant, rapping her knuckles against the wooden table top during a meeting with county officials June 12.

Yes, said county commissioners, but it’s a ticking time bomb.

“We’re talking local inmates from murderers to probation violators, warrants, those sorts of things,” Dickerson said.

One alternative the county has already explored is closing the jail and buying beds elsewhere, in Yamhill and Polk counties, for example. However, if the Columbia County Jail closed it would lose the ability to rent out beds for U.S. Marshall inmates. With the loss of that revenue coupled with an increase in transportation costs to bring Columbia County inmates to outside jail facilities, the Sheriff’s Office could only afford to rent 10 to 15 beds.