Town Hall Held to Discuss Impending Jail Closure

A Town Hall, hosted by Vernonia’s Voice, was held on Wednesday, March 12, to address concerns surrounding the closing of the Columbia County jail.  About fifteen people were in attendance.

All three Columbia County Commissioners, Tony Hyde, Earl Fisher, and Henry Heimuller, were part of the panel, along with Undersheriff Andy Moyer, representing the Sheriff’s Department.

Undersheriff Andy Moyer and County Commissioners Earl Fisher, Tony Hyde and Henry Heimuller were in Vernonia for a Town Hall March 12.

Undersheriff Andy Moyer and County Commissioners Earl Fisher, Tony Hyde and Henry Heimuller were in Vernonia for a Town Hall March 12.

Commissioner Hyde made it very clear at the outset of the meeting that the County intends to close the jail, and is already planning for that eventuality, as they begin their budget process for the upcoming 2014-15 fiscal year.

“This is not a threat,” said Hyde.  “It’s not ‘We may…’  We just went through some very difficult preliminary budget numbers today.  We are closing the jail.  Without a levy we are closing the jail; there are no options left.”

A citizens group “Keep Prisoners in Jail,” was formed early this calendar year to collect signatures, and petitioned the County Commissioners to place another bond levy on the May 20, 2014 ballot in a final attempt to halt the closure of the county jail.  The levy would tax Columbia County property owners $0.58 per thousand and provide the minimum revenue needed to continue jail operations for the next four years.

All three Commissioners agreed that this operation levy was a temporary, stopgap measure.  Hyde explained that there are current economic development projects happening in Columbia County. “Within four to five years I think we are going to be in really good shape as a county,” said Hyde.  “I really, honestly believe that.  We just have so much happening.  We have a lot of companies that are now starting to come into Columbia County.  But right now we have this gap we are up against.”

The jail was originally designed to house a total of 250 inmates.  Because of recent budget reductions it currently only houses a maximum capacity of twenty-five local inmates.

If additional funding is not secured the current plan calls for Columbia County to rent ten beds from Polk County for local prisoners,  and book and release most other local arrestees.  If a prisoner is considered especially dangerous or violent, the County would have to decide which prisoner already incarcerated to release and make space, something they already do whenever they reach the maximum of twenty-five.  With additional funding from a successful levy the jail could house up to one hundred local prisoners.

A previous levy last November failed at the polls, 58.3% to 41.7%.  Following that failure the County Commissioners began looking at options for shutting the jail.  The jail requires twenty-five employees and a $4.8 million budget.  The County General Fund currently only provides $2.9 million,  including revenue (approximately $1.5 million) they receive from the rental of eighty-five to 100 beds to the United States Marshall Service. Because of this short-fall, the jail is currently operating with only sixteen employees.

Commissioner Hyde opened the discussion at the Town Hall by giving some background about the jail.  Hyde explained that the Jail is funded through discretionary funds in the General Fund.  Hyde stated that the Sheriff’s Department uses about 26% of the General  Fund;  he says that a normal amount in other counties around the country is 21-25%.

Commissioner Heimuller told the audience that when County voters approved and built a new $13 million dollar, state-of-the-art jail in 1999, the intention was to return to the voters with a bond for operations.  According to both Hyde and Heimuller, the original intention of the citizens committee that worked on the jail project was to operate the jail for a few years to establish costs and bed rental potential before returning to the citizens for an operating levy.  Commissioner Hyde explained that, instead, the County received an additional $2.4 million in discretionary budget funding through the “Secure Rural Schools” bill, which made it unnecessary to go back to the voters for more funding.  

Hyde said that the hope of  “Secure Rural Schools” was that timber harvests would increase throughout the northwest, and provide funding for local counties.  The bill provided a declining scale of funding over six years.  Hyde says that when additional timber harvests didn’t happen, discretionary funding began shrinking.  The bill was extended but has now sunset. The County only received  $400,000 last year from the program and will receive no funding this coming year.

Hyde went on to say that in 2008 the County discretionary fund was $12.5 million; this past year it was $6.2 million.  “Our discretionary revenue has been cut in half,” said Hyde.  “And the Sheriff’s Department is still getting 26%, but the General Fund discretionary revenue  is 26% of  a lot less money than it was.”

When asked, Hyde told the audience that the current jail still has nine years until it has been completely paid for.

Commissioner Fisher told the audience that the jail is being run as efficiently as possible but needs to add seven employees to remain safe and within state and federal guidelines and regulations.  “We have run on this thin ice for about as long as we can,” said Fisher.  “The costs are going up because we need to get back to where we are fully staffed.”   Hyde later noted that employees of the jail are currently looking for employment elsewhere because of the reality of the closure, and that it doesn’t make sense to replace lost employees at this point.

Fisher went on to say, “There simply is no more money.  The fundamental choice we face is to close the jail and live within our budget or find some additional revenues.  The solution to our problem is growth; economic development that will bring jobs and with that a tax base that will allow us to have the things we need.”

When asked about the cost for the levy to property owners, Heimuller handed out a flyer which showed the cost for a property assessed at $150,000 would be $87 per year; for a property valued at $350,000 the levy would be $203 per year.  The levy is temporary and only set to run for four years; voters would need to reauthorize it to keep it going.

An audience member asked if the jail could be downsized and operated on a smaller scale in order to reduce costs. Moyer, who is the jail commander and oversees jail operations, told the audience that currently the jail has four posts they fill on a twenty-four hour basis: an officer in booking, a control room officer who opens all doors and moves inmates anywhere they need to go, and two roving deputies who control, manage, check on and count, and serve meals to all inmates.  “No matter how many inmates we have, we need a minimum of that many people,” explained Moyer.  Right now we fill those posts with sixteen people and if you do the math on eight hour shifts we are already down to minimum staffing.  Studies have shown we need twenty-four to twenty-five staff just for the level we are at now.”

Heimuller noted that the old jail, which could house thirty-nine inmates, took more staff to operate the facility.  “It took more people to run the jail in the old, archaic style, where you had to physically move people with deputies, than in this new, high tech jail.  It’s really impressive when you see the numbers and what is being done with such a limited number of staff.”

Moyer responded, when asked what it would cost the County to rent ten beds in Polk County, that they were budgeting $1.2 million dollars.  Moyer noted that costs include the Department keeping two employees to manage prisoners, the cost to transport prisoners to the facility and to court, and the cost of renting the beds, which he estimated is $65 per night, per bed.  Fisher added that it will be the same amount from the General Fund as is currently being expended.  “This is not a cost savings to the County,” said Fisher.  Moyer also added that closing the jail will provide no extra funds to the Sheriff’s Office to hire additional patrol deputies.

Moyer told an audience member that the jail is not able to use volunteers to run the facility.  Moyer said the state requires that prison positions be staffed by state certified corrections deputies.  Moyer noted that jail food service is provided by a contractor who provides one employee to plan menus, order supplies, and supervise preparation; inmates cook the food.  Inmates also do their own laundry and clean the jail facility.

An audience member asked if there were closer facilities where Columbia County could house prisoners.  Moyer explained that Clatsop and Washington Counties do not have space.  Multnomah County charges about $125 per night to rent a bed.  Yamhill County could not guarantee bed space and had a higher rate than Polk County.  NORCOR, a regional facility in The Dalles was the same rate and about the same distance as Polk County, but travel to that facility during winter months made that prohibitive.  Heimuller noted that the Commissioners have been in negotiations and searching for options for several years because they knew the jail closure was on the horizon.

Hyde returned to the idea that economic development is the key to Columbia County’s future.  He noted that Columbia County has put tax incentives in place to keep and attract business.  He also mentioned Port Westford, the last deep water port on the Lower Columbia River, as an asset.  Hyde went on to mention potential expansion at Scappoose Airport and the development of a new industrial park at that site. “Half or more of the time we spend as County Commissioners is spent trying to retain and attract new businesses,” said Hyde.  “We’re in the cat bird seat for the future, we really are.  We are the county where people are going to grow to.  I’m excited about our future.”

Moyer addressed a question about what the daily reality is for local law enforcement when the jail closes.  Moyer stated that the jail has held as many as 200 prisoners at one time, which included approximately 100 local inmates.  He said that three years ago the jail had to set a local bed limit of sixty-five based upon their funding.  This past year they reduced that number again to twenty-five.  “Our deputies are already citing and releasing where they used to take people to jail,” said Moyer.  “Things like theft, if they threw a rock through your window or slashed your tires, drunk driving.  A lot of times right now they might get lodged, sometimes they get a ticket.”

Moyer explained what would happen with only ten beds available.  “Those ten beds are already full with people we already have in custody.  We have two people that are awaiting trial for murder.  We have two or three others that are in there for attempted murder or rape.  Those are the types of people we’re going to put in those ten beds.”

Moyer said the other fifteen would be let loose right into Columbia County.  He went on to explain that when patrol officers arrest somebody, whether it’s the city police in Vernonia, St. Helens, Scappoose or  Sheriff patrol deputies,  they are most likely going to issue a citation and a court date.  If it rises to a higher level they may take them to the Sheriff’s office and do a book and release where they take all pertinent information but still release them with a court date.  If a prisoner needs to be held decisions will have to be made about which of the other ten can be released.  Moyer did say they will have limited funds set aside to rent beds on a nightly basis if needed.

When asked specifically about Domestic Assault arrests, Moyer explained that most are considered a low level crime, classified as Assault 4, and would be given a citation and a court date.  Moyer said Drunk Driving arrests were similar.

One of the consequences of this system is that people tend to not show up for their court dates.  “We already have a history of this right now because we are doing a lot of cite and release,” said Moyer.  “The District Attorney told me that ‘failure to appear’ situations have gone up by a multiple of four.  Then we get warrants.  Then we have to re-catch them.  It’s going to make it harder for us on the patrol side.”  Fisher added, “This becomes a real demoralizing position for the police to be in.”

Moyer shared some statistics.  In 2013 the City of Vernonia lodged sixty people in the jail.  The Sheriff’s Office lodged 250 people.  St. Helens lodged 472 last year.

Hyde brought up the point that the County has been supplementing city budgets by not charging them to house prisoners.  “That reality is about to hit all the city budgets,” said Hyde.  “I don’t think the cities fully realize this.”

Fisher stated that the County Commissioners have pledged to form a citizens committee to monitor the jail budget if the levy were to pass.

Moyer closed the meeting by inviting anyone from the public to visit the jail and take a tour.