Jail operation levy in hands of voters
Jefferson County Sheriff Marc Heckathorn understands why people groan when they see a jail levy on their ballot.
"It's like getting socks for Christmas," he says. "People like passing measures when they get something out of it."
The three-year retiring levy cost taxpayers $1.39 per $1,000 valuation. This new levy raises that cost to $1.69 per $1,000 valuation and lasts five years.
The owner of a $250,000 home who now pays $347 a year would pay $422 a year under the new levy.
That will bring an increase of $633,000 in the first year of the levy. That increase replaces revenue the county lost when Crook County opened its jail in 2019 and no longer contracted with Jefferson County to house their inmates.
The increase also covers increased personnel costs and increased costs of medical care for inmates.
When the Crook County contract went away, Heckathorn cut staff which he says will save $800,000 over the next six years.
The jail budget for the first year under the new levy will be $4,052,402, actually less than the budget allocated this year under the current levy.
"I have cut personnel from the existing budget so we will not be spending $4.4 million this year," says Heckathorn, "and that money is being rolled into the beginning fund balance for the next levy."
The taxpayers won't actually "see" anything new for their money.
"There's nothing sexy about a jail levy," says Heckathorn. "It's an essential service we treat as a luxury."
Law requires the sheriff to operate a jail. If this levy fails, Heckathorn plans to return in the spring with a similar proposal.
"If it fails again, we'll lose 77% of our operating budget," says Heckathorn, "and staff will likely be laid off and inmate capacity will be reduced."
While the jail has the capacity to house 150 inmates, staffing allows an average of between 70 and 80 inmates. If the levy fails a second time, Heckathorn expects to drop that capacity to 24 beds.
The sheriff makes a case that crime goes up when jail capacity goes down.
"The most important part of this entire link is the jail," he says. "Without the jail, you can have all the cops on the street that you want. If you don't have any place to put the bad guys when they do get arrested, the system fails."
The sheriff backs his claim with anecdotal examples.
When the jail cut back capacity because of COVID restrictions, crime increased.
"In a 10-month time period, we had eight major crimes callouts for Jefferson County," says Heckathorn. A major callout involves crimes investigated as murders. "In an eight-year period from 2012 to 2020, we had five."
Heckathorn says traffic accidents and violent crimes were both higher than usual during 2020. The county has had no major crime team callouts since it reopened the jail to its full capacity.
When Heckathorn started with the sheriff's office the county had far fewer jail beds.
"We had the highest crimes per thousand (in Central Oregon) prior to the jail opening, and then for five years after that, we had the lowest crime rate," recalls Heckathorn.
"There was no magic that happened. It was simply bad guys were in jail. And that was the big difference."
Today, a typical shift operates with three uniformed personnel, one to oversee the inmates from the camera feeds and two to handle intake and release of inmates and to check on each inmate every hour. The staff also includes a jail commander, a sergeant, two court supervisors and a nurse.
Heckathorn set up three education opportunities to meet with the public about the levy. He'll meet people in person and on Zoom from the Jefferson County Commission Chambers at 66 SE D St. in Madras.
— Friday, Oct. 15 at 1 p.m.
— Tuesday, Oct. 19 at noon
— Tuesday, Oct. 26 at 5 p.m.
People can find the Zoom links on the Jefferson County Sheriff Facebook page.
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