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Commissioners approve ballot title, set election date

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Scappoose Mayor Scott Burge addresses the Columbia County Board of Commissioners Wednesday, Feb. 19. Burge was one of several elected officials to testify in favor of placing an operating levy to fund the Columbia County Jail on the May 20 election ballot Wednesday.After hearing testimony from Columbia County elected officials and citizens Wednesday, Feb. 19, the Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to place a $7.07 million, three-year operating levy to fund the Columbia County Jail on the May 20 primary election ballot.

More than a dozen people filled the seating area of the Columbia County Courthouse meeting room where the county commissioners convene, with vitrually all who testified urging the commissioners to give the levy another chance. A $9.57 million levy to keep the jail open for four more years failed last November, to the commissioners’ disappointment.

St. Helens City Councilor Susan Conn, who led an effort this month to gather signatures in support of a second levy, said she did not know how many signatures in total had been gathered. She turned in a number of signature sheets to the board, including a small stack she said had not been tallied up.

But despite County Commissioner Earl Fisher’s statement last month that the commissioners would like to see 750 to 1,000 signatures in favor of a levy before they would refer a measure to the ballot, the precise number of signatures appeared to be a minor consideration for the board. After hearing public testimony, the commissioners swiftly approved a ballot title and order for an election — a document drafted ahead of time for the board’s consideration.

“We’re getting the message that we would be remiss if we did not seriously consider putting this on the ballot,” Hyde said after public testimony wrapped up.

Fisher agreed, adding, “You may not like the sheriff, and you may not like the commissioners, and you might not like the governor or the president, but it isn’t about the president, or the governor, or the commissioners or the sheriff. ... This is an issue about us as a community.”

During the public testimony portion of the discussion, the board heard from the mayors of Scappoose, St. Helens and Clatskanie, as well as Conn, Columbia County District Attorney Steve Atchison, Scappoose School District Superintendent Stephen Jupe and Clatskanie Police Chief Marvin Hoover.

Scappoose Mayor Scott Burge said his concerns about potential deleterious effects on economic development and public safety in the county have prompted him to support funding the jail, even if it means raising property taxes.

“Putting this back on the ballot gives us that chance to explain and maybe sell to the communities that there is a problem here,” said Burge. “And I’m the type of person that normally would knee-jerk against higher taxes. But you can’t knee-jerk against a need. You know, if there is that actual need, you have to do it, you have to stand up for it. And this is that case.”

Hoover said the number of signatures gathered to support the levy should not factor into the commissioners’ decision-making.

“I’m asking you to do the right thing and put this on the ballot, whether you have a signature or not,” Hoover said to the commissioners. “You owe it to everyone in Columbia County — whether they voted for you, whether they voted for the jail, whether they appreciate anything we do. We need to have a jail that’s operating.”

Atchison and Hyde both suggested the state of Columbia County’s criminal justice system has declined, with Atchison noting an increase in people charged with the criminal offense of failing to appear for their scheduled court appointments over the past two years — from one or two per month to as many as five in one week, he said. The jail cut its capacity for local inmates from 65 beds to 25 beds beginning last July due to budget constraints.

“Some of the failures to appear, the underlying charge is failure to appear,” said Atchison. “It gets to be almost comical if it weren’t so serious, because people are taking the attitude of, ‘Well, why do I have to go? What are you going to do to me?’”

County officials have said the jail will close without new revenue by the end of June. The Board of Commissioners approved last Wednesday an intergovernmental agreement with Polk County to rent 10 jail beds in that county in case of the Columbia County Jail’s closure. Meanwhile, St. Helens is exploring the idea of a municipal levy to pay for additional jail bed rentals for St. Helens inmates only if the jail closes, the city’s Mayor Randy Peterson told the commissioners Wednesday.

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