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Ballot measures set for May election

Jail levy, fire bond, charter update will go before local voters


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The Fairgrounds Station, located near the Columbia County Fairgrounds west of St. Helens, is one of the facilities that Columbia River Fire & Rescue plans to upgrade if voters approve a $15 million bond issue in May.The filing deadline for measures to appear on the May 20 primary ballot elapsed Thursday, March 20.

According to the Columbia County Elections Department, three measures were filed for the ballot, including a high-profile operating levy for the Columbia County Jail and a large capital bond issue for Columbia River Fire & Rescue.

Jail operating levy

Despite the failure of a four-year operating levy last November, the Board of County Commissioners referred a three-year levy with the same mill rate to the May ballot last month after a chorus of calls from local officials and others to make another attempt.

If approved, the levy is expected to raise about $7.07 million over three years to pay for jail operations. It would boost the jail’s capacity to hold local inmates from 25 to 100 and pay for six new corrections deputies and a supervisory position. The county commissioners have also declared their intention to form an advisory committee of citizens to provide oversight as to how the revenue from the levy is spent at the jail, if the levy option passes.

Without additional revenue for the jail, the facility is expected to close by the end of June, according to county officials. They say declining revenues and rising operating costs have made it virtually impossible for the county to keep the jail open without a dedicated funding stream, which the commissioners hope the levy will provide.Conn

The levy campaign is being led by a political action committee called Don’t Bail on the Jail, which was formed earlier this month.

Susan Conn, director of the committee and member of the St. Helens City Council, said the group’s goal is to spread the message that there will be undesirable effects on the local crime rate, livability and economic development if the jail closes.

“We’re just trying to use every method we can of reaching people,” Conn said.

The county has already begun to make contingency plans in case voters again reject the levy option. Under an intergovernmental agreement with Polk County inked earlier this year, Columbia County will have the option of renting 10 jail beds in Dallas — about a two-hour drive from St. Helens — for $650 per day, provided the Polk County Board of Commissioners approves the agreement.

Conn contends the Polk County option will be insufficient for Columbia County’s needs and expensive for cities, whose police departments will be on the hook for certain inmate transports.

“Really, I think people need to understand that 10 beds are not enough,” said Conn. “And 10 beds in another county is not cost-effective.”

The jail levy will appear on all county voters’ ballots.

Fire district bond issue

Many voters will also see another money measure on their ballots. Voting residents of the Columbia River Fire & Rescue district, which stretches along the Columbia River from Rainier to Warren, will be asked whether they will approve a $15 million bond issue.

Fire district officials say the bond is needed to pay for upgrades to certain fire stations — particularly seismic improvements at the CRF&R station in Rainier and the expansion of its station by the Columbia County Fairgrounds, west of St. Helens — and new equipment, anticipating the need to phase out and replace aging apparatuses over the next two decades.Tappan

“Everything that’s in our bond is a replacement item over 15 to 20 years,” said CRF&R Chief Jay Tappan on Thursday. “There’s only one new item, and that would be a fire engine for the Deer Island station.”

The bond issue is set to mature over the course of 20 years, if voters approve it in May.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” Tappan said. “I know it seems like a large ask, but it is spread out.”

Both Conn and Tappan acknowledged the difficulty of having two money measures before voters at the same election.

“I think there’s always a concern when there’s more than one money measure on the ballot,” said Conn. “Naturally, I would wish that we were the only one on the ballot, but that’s not realistic.”

Conn and Tappan noted that both measures pertain to public safety. They said they do not want voters to feel they have to choose one over the other.

“We’re not competing with the jail levy,” Tappan said. “We’re just looking at the long-range plan to keep our services strong and make sure our response is good.”

Columbia City charter

A local measure will also be on the ballot in Columbia City.

A committee of citizens formed to review Columbia City’s charter has proposed changes to the governing document. The changes are characterized in the official notice of ballot title as intended “to remove obsolete provisions, clarify provisions, and reflect standard municipal organization and practices.”

City Administrator Leahnette Rivers said the charter, which was adopted in 1972, “has a lot of archaic-type language.”

The measure would also enshrine Columbia City’s form of government in the charter — namely, establishing the city administrator as the “administrative head” of the city government.Rivers

“Although we aren’t chartered as a city manager form of government, we’re kind of structured that way,” Rivers said. “It’s not really going to change much of how things operate.”

If the measure is approved and the charter is amended, the governing structure of Columbia City could only be changed again by the voters, Rivers said.

The measure would also add rules governing the city administrator and council to the charter, many of which are in practice already. The updated charter would require the City Council to meet at least once a month, allow the council to remove the city administrator from office by a majority vote and prohibit the mayor or council members from being employed by the city, among other mandates.

County commissioner, judgeship contests

Voters will also make their choice for Columbia County commissioner at the May primary election. Only two candidates — incumbent Commissioner Henry Heimuller and challenger Wayne Mayo — are on the ballot, and whoever wins more than 50 percent of the vote will be declared elected under Oregon state law.

A contested race for the seat of appointed Judge Jean Marie Martwick on the Columbia County Circuit Court will also be on the ballot. If Martwick or one of her challengers, Cathleen Callahan or Jason Heym, clears 50 percent of the vote, that candidate will win the election, but otherwise, the top two vote-getters in that race will advance to the general election in November.