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Taxpayers would balk at cost of new jail

A survey reveals a majority of Jackson County voters likely would oppose new taxes to pay for a bigger jail.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners was briefed on the results of the survey Tuesday.

The survey of 329 county voters was conducted in late March by Portland-based DHM Research.

The county has hired the survey firm in the past and received accurate predictions for how residents would vote on library funding proposals.

The new survey found a majority of respondents do not support a construction bond to build a new jail, and an even larger majority oppose forming a new taxing district to fund the ongoing costs of running a larger jail.

A $100 million construction bond to build a 1,000-bed jail would cost 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value — or $70 a year for the owner of a house assessed at $200,000.

The survey found 44 percent of respondents would vote for the bond, 54 percent would vote against it and 2 percent were undecided.

A new tax district to pay for increased operating expenses would cost 74 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value — or $148 per year for the owner of a house assessed at $200,000.

The survey revealed only 27 percent would vote for the new taxing district, while 71 percent would vote against it and 2 percent were undecided.

The total annual cost for the new jail would be $218 for the owner of property assessed at $200,000.

The survey results show the public is sensitive to the cost of a new jail, said DHM Vice President and Political Director John Horvick.

A construction bond and tax district to fund increased operating costs would likely fail at the ballot, he said.

“There’s a high probability of it not being successful, especially in the short term,” Horvick said.

Even demographic groups that are historically most supportive of funding measures — women, Democrats and young voters — do not have majorities in favor of the jail-funding proposals, Horvick said.

“It’s struggling across many different demographics and voter types,” he said.

The survey sampled multiple subgroups of registered voters, including by age, gender, political party and area of residence in the county. The telephone survey reached those with cellphones as well as land lines, according to DHM Research.

The margin of error for results was plus or minus 5.4 percentage points, Horvick said.

Few survey respondents changed their minds even after being presented with additional information about the need for a new jail.

They were told the existing jail was built nearly 40 years ago when the Jackson County population was half what it is today.

Inmates are regularly released from the 292-bed Jackson County Jail due to overcrowding.

A new jail would help ensure suspected criminals appear for trial and convicted criminals serve their full punishment. Inmates also would be able to get needed mental health and addiction treatment in a larger jail, respondents were told.

The new information caused the number of people in favor of a construction bond to tick up from 44 percent to 46 percent.

Those in favor of a tax district for operations went up from 27 percent to 37 percent.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts said the survey results make clear that the public is concerned about the cost of a new jail.

“I don’t think anyone doubts that our jail is full,” she said.

Commissioner Rick Dyer said having an inadequately sized jail puts costs on society.

“There are costs that are associated with not building a jail,” he said.

County Administrator Danny Jordan said the county is already using a broad spectrum of jail alternatives, from house arrest to having criminals stay at the Jackson County Transition Center between Talent and Phoenix.

But without the threat of time in jail, criminals have little incentive to follow the rules of alternative programs or appear in court, Jordan said.

“Every other part of the system has lifted as heavily as it can, and they’re starting to break,” he said.

Although the public doesn’t perceive the size of the jail as a critical issue, those involved in law enforcement do, Jordan said.

Jordan said the county could explore locating a site for a new jail, acquiring land and creating a conceptual design, because taking those steps will only become more expensive in the future.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said he will continue making presentations to community groups about the need for a new jail.

“This has been the most pressing issue since I’ve taken this office,” he said.

Sickler said the sheriff’s office will continue to run the jail in the best way that it can.

Commissioner Bob Strosser said law enforcement agencies, the District Attorney’s Office, judges and defense lawyers all need to help Sickler make the case that their work is hampered by an inadequate jail.

County commissioners plan to hold a future work session to discuss potential next steps.

“I know this isn’t the end of what we do to try and address this,” Dyer said.

Although survey respondents didn’t support the proposed jail spending, they did name crime in general as their top concern, followed by homelessness, education funding, drug-related crimes and housing affordability. Mental health and addiction services also came up on the list of concerns.

Horvick said county officials could win more support for jail funding if they could make a credible case an expanded jail would help with many of those issues.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Andy Atkinson / MT File Photo The Jackson County Jail in downtown Medford.