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Voters say no to $9.57 million measure, disappointing county officials

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - A sign in front of Scappoose City Hall directing voters where to drop off their ballots Tuesday, Nov. 5, the day of the election. Voter turnout was 42.7 percent, according to unofficial results on the Columbia County website.Columbia County voters rejected county commissioners’ local option levy to fund the Columbia County Jail in the Tuesday, Nov. 5, general election, dealing a blow to county officials’ efforts to keep operating the 255-bed facility.

Unofficial results on the county website show that with all election precincts reporting, 58.3 percent of voters opposed the measure, giving “no” a winning margin of 16.6 percentage points.

The rejection of the $9.57 million levy, which would have funded four years of operations at the jail and allowed the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office to increase jail capacity for local offenders, flouted the wishes of the political establishment in Columbia County.

All three county commissioners vocally supported the measure, as did the mayors of all seven cities in the county, the county’s state legislators and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson.

In a statement released on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page Tuesday night, Dickerson said, “On one hand, we are disappointed tonight in the results of the election, on the other hand, the voters have clearly made their collective will known. This result brings us to decision time at the County, and I will be meeting as soon as possible with the Board of Commissioners to chart our path forward.”

Scappoose business owner Brady Preheim, who led the effort to defeat the levy, said Wednesday that he expected voters to render an even more decisive verdict against the measure.

“I’m pretty happy,” Preheim said. “I’m actually surprised it was not a bigger margin, frankly. I predicted 66 percent [voting ‘no’].”

Preheim added, “I think if more people had voted, it would have been an even bigger margin.”

County commissioners expressed disappointment in the outcome of the election Wednesday at the Board of County Commissioners’ morning meeting.

“I’m still reeling from last night ... although I’m not surprised,” said Commissioner Tony Hyde, noting the failure of spending measures in several other Oregon counties Tuesday.

“I think a lot of people worked very hard to try to get it passed, but it didn’t happen, so we’ll have to live with the results,” Commissioner Earl Fisher said.

Speaking after the meeting, Commissioner Henry Heimuller said the board will work to determine a “Plan B” for county corrections.

“We’ll have to take a different approach now,” Heimuller acknowledged.

The board may return to voters in the May primary election with another measure to fund the jail, which county officials say is likely to close unless a new revenue stream is found. Local funding for the jail has been on the wane for several years due to shrinking county budgets.

Asked directly if the board plans to put another levy question to voters Wednesday, Heimuller demurred.

“I’m not even going to throw anything out there,” said Heimuller. “We haven’t had those conversations with all the players involved right now. Before that could happen, we’d have to evaluate a lot of things — everything from potentials for success for us, but also what other districts and stuff are going to be coming out for money measures in May.”

Preheim said he hopes commissioners “hear this message” and do more to reach out if they move forward with another levy.

“They need to do a lot more work, and that would start with some town halls to hear what the voters would support,” said Preheim.

The jail levy was the only item on Columbia County ballots this fall.

Voter turnout was 42.7 percent, which Fisher and Heimuller said exceeded their expectations for the one-question ballot. “Yes” on the levy received 5,085 votes, with “no” earning 7,110 votes.

Oregon voters approved a “double majority” requirement for local tax increases in the 1990s that would have required voter turnout of at least 50 percent in order for the measure to be able to pass. However, that requirement was waived for May and November elections by Measure 56, which passed in 2008.

Unofficial results updated.

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