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Sheriff, commissioners had agreed to reimburse $190k in January but attorney now says they've reconsidered

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Columbia County finance director Louise Kallstrom, Commissioner Margaret Magruder and counsel Sarah Hanson attend a jail finance advisory committee meeting in January 2020.Columbia County leaders have backpedaled on their commitment to reimbursement $190,150 that came out of the jail's budget.

Sheriff Brian Pixley had agreed to transfer the funds from the county's general fund into the jail fund, because three Columbia County Sheriff's Office clerks had been paid entirely out of the jail budget for three years, despite doing work for both the jail and the enforcement side of CCSO. The county's Board of Commissioners voted to approve the transfer back in January.

More than three months later, at the end of April, Scappoose business owner Brady Preheim filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging that funds from the county's jail operations levy had been improperly used to finance enforcement operations.

In a Jan. 21 notice to Pixley and members of the Jail Operating Citizen Advisory Committee, county finance director Louise Kallstrom wrote that a supplemental budget would be made and presented to the commissioners for approval "in the near future."

But that supplemental budget never materialized.

Now, Commissioner Margaret Magruder says the transfer won't happen.

Magruder told JOCAC members that she could not comment on details of the lawsuit.

"But we can report that (through) the county's initial inquiry into the use of the jail funds for jail clerk and any of the other things that Brady (Preheim) noted in his litigation, we have determined that ... the sheriff used those funds appropriately," Magruder said at the JOCAC's Aug. 18 meeting.

"Until the litigation is completed, we won't be making any transfers from the general fund to the jail fund. But we will address any transfers resulting from a litigation all at once, if there are any transfers that come to light after the litigation," Magruder added.

Magruder declined to explain why the county hadn't made that transfer in the three months after voting to do so, before the lawsuit prompted a closer look.

At the committee's Oct. 20 meeting, Sarah Hanson, the county's staff attorney, said that the county did not believe the charges to the jail were invalid.

"When that number was initially discussed as being transferred, that was before there was really very much digging" into why Jeff Dickerson, the sheriff at the time, budgeted the positions that way, Hanson said.

In August 2019, Pixley wrote to JOCAC to explain the pay distribution of various CCSO employees in the jail and enforcement. Pixley wrote that he had been continually reviewing office processes since taking office.

"As part of this audit, I realized three of our clerks were paid 100% out of the jail budget. I did not feel this split was valid since they perform functions that are not jail-related," Pixley wrote.

Pixley said this week that the change he made last year was still in effect, with those three clerks paid 50% from the jail budget and 50% from the general sheriff's office budget.

Use of jail funds has been a contentious issue since the jail levy was initially proposed in Columbia County.

Supporters of the measure argued that the jail was underfunded and would have to release dangerous criminals if funding didn't increase. Critics feared that a dedicated jail levy would supplant general fund dollars, allowing the county to continue jail operations as they were, and use the additional funding for other programs or departments.

The intended transfer of funds was announced before the jail levy renewal went before voters in May. The levy was approved by voters with 58.8% in favor.

In the past, the county had pledged to continue funding jail operations out of the county's general fund, in addition to jail levy funds. For at least the last five years, the county transferred $1 million from the general fund to the jail fund each year.

Before the May 2020 election, Pixley asked county commissioners to renew the commitment to continue annual general fund transfers of $1 million to the jail in the ballot measure's explanatory statement or a formal resolution. Pixley said voters wanted a concrete pledge from the commissioners, but the county commissioners declined to vote on a specific amount of funding.

The explanatory statement in the voter's pamphlet said that the JOCAC's initial report on jail operations from 2017-2020 concluded that "with one correction, all funds raised by the levy, and all other funds raised for Jail operations have either been spent on Jail operation or are in an account reserved for Jail operations."

The "correction" referenced referred to the $190,150 transfer, with the assumption that the commissioners would follow through on their vote to reimburse.

The lawsuit filed by Preheim in April is ongoing.

In August, the attorney for the defendants argued that Preheim's allegations were too vague to respond to and filed a motion to require Preheim to make his complaint more specific. Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Cathleen Callahan denied the motion in September.

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