Benton County on Tuesday took the first tentative step toward asking voters to pay for a new jail — a request that’s been shot down twice at the polls in the past 10 years.
The county commissioners voted 3-0 Tuesday morning to authorize Sheriff Diana Simpson to appoint a committee to explore the possibility of building a new jail. With no money for the project in the county budget, any such proposal would require a voter-approved bond measure.
The sheriff said she would ask the Willamette Criminal Justice Council to form a committee of about 20 people, including council members and citizen volunteers, to evaluate jail needs and make recommendations to the Board of Commissioners.
Simpson said she hoped the committee could start meeting in early January and report to the commissioners by May 31. The commissioners would decide if and when to put a jail bond measure on the ballot.
Previous attempts have not fared well.
In May 2000, a $26 million bond to build a 144-bed jail lost by more than 1,200 votes. In November 2001, a scaled-down plan to build a 116-bed jail at a cost of $17.7 million went down by 1,900 votes.
Both bond measures came with tax levies to cover operating costs, which failed by even wider margins.
But the current jail, with just 40 beds, has long been inadequate for the county’s needs, Simpson argues, and the problem hasn’t gone away since the last ballot measure went down in flames.
“Nothing’s changed,” Simpson said. “In fact, conditions have gotten worse.”
Since 2000, Benton County has rented jail beds in other counties to house surplus prisoners. Currently, Simpson said, the county is spending more than $1 million a year to rent 40 jail beds in four neighboring counties — and that doesn’t count additional costs such as transportation and medical evaluations.
Like the downtown Corvallis jail, Simpson said, those rented beds are full pretty much all the time, and some prisoners are still released early due to lack of space.
A recently completed study commissioned by the Sheriff’s Office found that the county’s criminal justice system is “seriously compromised by the lack of sufficient jail space and by the condition and design of the 40-bed jail.”
Based on the study’s projections, Simpson thinks the county could get by with a smaller lockup than the ones proposed in previous bond measures. One possible design, she said, would be an 80-bed jail that also incorporates a work-release program.
A portion of the facility could be set up as multipurpose space, housing work-release inmates at night but reconfigured by day for substance abuse treatment programs, job training classes and other rehabilitation programs — “all the things we don’t have room for now,” she said.
Savings from the current bed-rental program would offset some of the operating expenses, but the jail itself could cost around $15 million or so to build, and the county would have to purchase land to build it on.
“I know it’s a lot of money,” Simpson said, “but I think the community may be ready to hear that we are basically banishing our problems to other counties. We’re not dealing with our problems here. I think it’s time to try it again.”
Timing may prove to be the crucial issue.
The Corvallis City Council, staring down a projected $3 million budget gap for the next biennium, is contemplating an operating levy of its own, possibly as early as the May election. The county’s own health and safety levy, which includes jail bed rental but also pays for other services, will come up for renewal in 2012.
All three county commissioners have endorsed the idea of building a new jail, but given the state of the economy and the potential for competing money measures, they’re leery of asking voters to tax themselves still further.
“I support having a new jail,” Commissioner Linda Modrell said after the meeting. “It’s not whether we need it, it’s when people might be willing to pay for it.”
Modrell doubted the county would be ready to put a measure on the ballot before 2012, in part because the jail committee will need time to develop its proposal, but also because it will need time to build public support.
“I just think that takes a lot of community education,” she said.
The details of the proposal matter, too, said Commissioner Annabelle Jaramillo.
“I want to see what the committee comes up with before I commit to go out there and do the work we would have to do to get it passed,” she said.
Even those considerations might not matter if a jail bond is competing with a city operating levy, Commissioner Jay Dixon said.
“If the city measure fails in May, will they put it back on the ballot in November? And if they do put it on the ballot in November, will people vote for it?” he asked. “Unfortunately, it’s not a science.”
But for the sheriff, there’s a sense of time slipping away.
“I understand that timing is everything and that this is not a good time for any of this,” Simpson said.
“(But) if we don’t go out for a bond measure in November 2011, the next time we could do it would probably be a few years down the road.”