Mayors voice support and campaign employs communications firm to get the word out

All seven of Columbia County’s mayors have lined up in support of a county initiative to pass a four-year operating levy for the Columbia County Jail. If passed, the levy is expected to generate on average $2.4 million annually.

The levy measure, titled Measure 5-234, will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.

“The punishment should fit the crime. Cite and release should not be tolerable,” said Columbia City Mayor Cheryl Young in a prepared release about the mayors’ support.

Considering no other local tax initiatives were filed to appear on the ballot before the Sept. 5 deadline, the questions being proposed to voters, at least on the surface, are simple ones.

“Up or down, jail or no jail?” said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson. “Do I want [my property tax] to go up this much, and do I feel comfortable with the fact that it will give us X amount of beds for four years?” by: FILE PHOTO - Dickerson

Levy supporters are pitching voters on a promise to expand jail capacity to hold at least the 100 “worst” offenders in the county. The jail levy differs from past attempts — there have been six in the last dozen years — in several ways. The last effort in 2011, for example, would have levied a tax of 63 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value and was geared toward increasing the number of deputies by five and adding three detectives to the Sheriff’s Office ranks. Patrols were the focus.

The 2011 levy option was soundly defeated, with 57 percent of voters weighing in against it. The ballot was crowded, however, with both the St. Helens and Clatskanie school districts seeking new facilities and operations tax revenue and Columbia City proposing its own police staffing levy, among other initiatives.

This time, the jail operations levy will stand alone.

Levy proponents aren’t taking any chances, however. A political action committee called Keep Prisoners In Jail has been formed to champion the levy, hiring the likes of Portland public relations firm CFM Strategic Communications to manage the campaign.

Dickerson said his role in the levy effort will be as an educator and public servant, not a campaign manager.

“I’m here to serve the people. I’ll find a way to get it done. It isn’t going to be pretty if we don’t have revenue from somewhere,” he said.

Narrowing choices

County officials point out that the jail is sufficiently funded to exist at its current level of local bed allocations through the election.

After Nov. 5, however, all bets are off.

“We’re down to 17 beds,” Dickerson said. “It’s just a hair’s breadth between that and no local beds. We’ve cut everything we can possibly cut just to have a facility that can book people and continue to hold the few that we have.”

“The jail is unsustainable on its current path,” he said.

Columbia County general fund dollars contribute $1.1 million toward operation of the jail. The rest, about $1.9 million at current projections, largely comes from renting bends to federal agencies, such as the United States Marshal’s Service. Most of the jail space, in fact, is reserved for renting beds to federal agencies.

“It’s money,” Dickerson said. “I make no bones about it. I get criticized about it from people who don’t understand. They don’t understand what those beds mean to the Sheriff’s Office and the jail.”

Of the 17 beds available — there are actually 25, though roughly eight are reserved for probation and parole violators and are paid for via the Oregon Office of Corrections — offenders such as Micah Leroy Bills, a 32-year-old registered sex offender who was arrested in May on attempted murder and attempted first-degree rape charges, occupy several. It’s a situation that has resulted in offenders such as burglars, drunk drivers and, in some cases, violent offenders being released earlier than their sentences would indicate, simply because even worse offenders are already taking up the few spots available in the jail.

It’s all part of the Sheriff’s Office matrix system, which has been in effect since November 2011.

The options were significantly trimmed in June, when budget restrictions prompted the county to reduce the number of local beds from 65 to the current level, escalating the frequency of early releases and resulting in more serious offenders being released shortly after being sentenced.

For a period in June, for example, one man sentenced for assaulting a police officer was released after serving only 110 days of a 180-day sentence. Others are barely booked into the jail before being notified that they’re being released. So far in 2013, 600 inmates have been released ahead of sentencing, eclipsing the 582 early releases in 2012.

Dickerson said Bills and offenders of his variety are staying put, however.

“We’re going to hold onto people like that,” he said.

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