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Surveying the jail situation

Jackson County has prepared a survey to gauge whether a possible tax district covering costs to build and operate a new jail has legs.

The phone survey will target 300 registered voters throughout the county of various ages, political parties and voting frequencies, and could go out as early as next week, according to Jackson County Senior Deputy County Administrator Harvey Bragg.

The county submitted its 11 “substantive” questions to Portland-based research firm DHM Research on Wednesday, which Bragg said was behind schedule, so it’s possible the survey could be delayed.

“We kind of had a slot when we started this,” Bragg said, adding that he’s unsure whether the county missed its time slot with the company.

The survey will be among the county’s earliest indicators as to whether voters would support a law enforcement tax district covering new jail costs roughly estimated at $100 million.

A new jail is estimated to cost property owners about $1.09 per $1,000 of assessed property value, with construction costs estimated to account for 35 cents’ worth, and would be paid off within 20 years. The remaining 74 cents would be ongoing to cover increases in operating costs estimated at $14 million per year. The owner of a house assessed at $200,000 would initially pay $218 per year.

The numbers so far are “ball park” figures, according to Bragg, estimated based on costs the county knows from the current jail. If survey responses are positive, the county will begin working to flesh out the actual costs by contacting an architect, siting a possible location and more closely studying potential infrastructure costs.

Cost of the survey is budgeted at “no more than $16,000,” according to Bragg. Earlier news reports that followed a February Jackson County commissioners meeting had estimated the survey to cost between $30,000 and $60,000.

DHM Research is an “independent and nonpartisan opinion research firm,” according to the company’s website. Bragg said the county has used similar surveys in “every district or bond that we’ve done.”

The surveys have worked as effective bellwethers in the early stages of initiatives such as the Jackson County Library District levy, which created a library district with a permanent tax levy in May 2014, and the bond measure that built new libraries throughout the county in May 2000, according to Bragg.

Bragg said the jail proposal would differ from the library district levy in that the commissioners would serve as the board for the proposed law enforcement district. A similar model is the White City Enhanced Law Enforcement District, which covers expanded police services by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in the unincorporated area.

The survey will help the county determine whether it makes sense for them to further research the costs involved in building a jail with a capacity of about 750 beds and potential later to max-out closer to 1,000 beds.

The current jail, built in 1981, has a capacity of 292 beds, which include the 62-bed basement that reopened in April 2017. Within a week of the basement level reopening, the jail was back at capacity. The current jail was designed to allow two extra levels to be built atop the structure at 787 W. Eighth St., but building codes and earthquake standards changed within years after the structure was completed.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler has said the current jail is “causing strain” on the rest of the criminal justice system, and archives show that Sickler is not the first to explore a new facility.

In 2006, former sheriff Mike Winters said, “The jail was outdated the day they built it,” after having the National Institute of Corrections audit the facility with the goal of building a new jail by 2008. Consultants for the federal agency outlined alternatives that the sheriff’s office adopted, such as court appearances by closed-circuit video within the jail. Archives show that timing hobbled Winters’ proposal, with county commissioners voicing concerns about dropping federal timber revenues within days of the report.

Winters ultimately had the basement remodeled from office space to jail space in April 2014, using capital projects dollars and a $1.2 million annual contract leasing space from the federal government. Former Sheriff Corey Falls closed that basement in November 2015, citing staffing vacancies and training concerns. Sickler reopened the jail in April 2017, which followed a concerted recruiting effort. (Corrected)

Last October, National Institute of Corrections consultants returned to present findings from a new audit, in which they commended the county’s use of alternative-incarceration programs and the jail’s cooperation with courts to turn around cases, averaging within 120 days from initial charge to sentencing.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

Correction: The print edition stated the incorrect year when the Jackson County Jail basement reopened. It reopened in April 2017.

File photo / Mail Tribune Jackson County officials are testing the waters of a new tax district that would fund a replacement for the Jackson County Jail, which is at capacity.