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Jail operations levy passes by more than 3,000 votes; approved for four more years

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Holding cells at the Columbia County Jail can be occupied by newly-booked inmates or individuals in custody who are at high risk of harming themselves.Updated May 24.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated voter turnout percentages. Initial election results released by the county had switched the number of registered democrats and republicans, leading to the error.

In the most definitive result for Columbia County local elections, voters approved Measure 5-281. The measure, which renews the Columbia County Jail operations levy, was approved with 59% of the vote, final election night results show.

With a margin of 3,000 votes, the jail levy renewal was the most conclusive result in a night that left off with a school bond decided by just over 300 votes and sent every local contested election on to the general election in November.

Of Columbia County's 39,250 registered voters, 48.3% voted in the election, representing decrease of four points from the last presidential primary.

Approved by voters, the rate of $.58 per $1,000 in assessed value will continue to fund operation of the Columbia County Jail.

Without the levy, which provides roughly $3.2 million a year, the county has said it would have to significantly decrease available beds and release more inmates.

Voters were not deterred by a lawsuit filed against the county last month, which claimed the previous sheriff had intentionally misused jail levy funds for enforcement expenses.

The jail levy was first passed in 2014 and was renewed in 2016. Prior to receiving levy funds, the jail had to force release as many as 791 inmates in a year. Since the levy was in effect, the jail has not force released any inmates.

Most of the people in custody at the jail have not been found guilty of crimes, or are serving short sentences for relatively minor crimes or parole violations.

The jail levy approved in 2014 required the creation of the Jail Operations Citizen Advisory Committee. JOCAC members are expected to review jail finances to advise the sheriff and county commissioners on the appropriate use of jail levy funds.

In 2019, the jail levy generated $3.16 million. For that fiscal year, the jail also received $2.42 million from fees, permits, fines and service charges, plus a $1.35 million transfer from county funds. Personnel costs ate up most of the jail revenue. The jail also draws a large profit from boarding federal inmates.

A fiscal sustainability report prepared for the county last year recommended moving to form a Public Safety Service District in place of the levy. Local option levies can only last five years before requiring another vote from residents, whereas a district could remain permanently.

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