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Sheriff refocuses efforts on jail proposal

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler plans to form a community panel after Ashland and Talent city councils derailed plans to put a proposal for a new jail to a countywide vote in November.

Sickler hopes to try again and have the jail proposal on the May 2020 ballot.

He wants concerned city officials, mental health providers, addiction treatment professionals and others to sit on the community panel. The panelists would learn more about the jail proposal and community needs, while also providing input.

“I want to get ideas from cities that felt we needed to be more inclusive,” Sickler said during a Thursday briefing with Jackson County commissioners.

Earlier this month, Ashland City Council voted 3-2 not to have the town’s residents vote on a new taxing district that would raise $100 million toward the cost of a $166 million jail.

Jackson County had offered to contribute $66 million from its reserve funds.

Talent City Council didn’t take a formal vote on the jail issue, but several said they couldn’t support the proposal.

Other city councils in the county backed the effort to put the issue before voters.

Councilors in both Ashland and Talent questioned whether replacing the existing 315-bed jail with an 800-bed jail was the best use of resources. They said the community needs to do more to address the root causes of crime, including addiction, mental health issues, poverty and homelessness.

Sickler said the jail is too small, leading to a catch-and-release system that allows offenders to commit more crimes and sink deeper into addiction or mental illness.

“That’s doing more damage to the offender,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, is teaming with Jackson County Community Justice and local groups to try and provide addiction treatment medication in the jail. Medication can ease the symptoms of opioid withdrawal and curb cravings — giving people a better chance of not using drugs when they are released.

A larger jail with dedicated funding for operations could provide six times as much mental health and addiction treatment care, Sickler said.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said he believes reluctant city councilors will support the jail proposal if they see how it can address crime and improve outcomes for offenders.

“Most of the concerns are perceptions based on a lack of information,” Dyer said.

The jail proposal went before city councils in the county because the proposed funding mechanism was a new tax district. City councils had to decide whether they would let their residents vote on the district.

A proposed property tax of 84 cents per $1,000 of assessed value would have funded both construction and increased operating costs for a larger jail.

The owner of a home assessed at $187,910 — the average in the county — would have paid $156.96 more in taxes each year.

County Administrator Danny Jordan said county commissioners could bypass the reluctant city councils and put a construction bond directly before all voters in the county. The bond, however, wouldn’t cover the increased operating costs of a larger jail.

Voters could create a tax district to pay for operations, with unwilling cities excluded from the district’s taxing boundaries. The cities that wanted to be in the district would have to pay more to make up for the cities that opted out.

The construction bond plus tax district approach would be less efficient and more confusing to voters than a streamlined plan to fund both construction and operations through a tax district, Jordan said.

“We would prefer to have all the cities participate,” he said.

With a construction and operations tax district, Talent would cover a small fraction of the cost. Ashland’s contribution, however, would be more significant, Jordan said.

Talent has an population of about 6,725, compared to Ashland’s population of about 22,250. Ashland also has more expensive housing, leading to higher property tax assessments.

Ashland City Council was more divided on the jail issue. Some councilors were willing to send the proposal to Ashland voters in November, while others said they were open to a jail proposal that included a comprehensive addiction and mental health treatment plan.

As the Rogue Valley continues to debate the new jail proposal, Jordan said costs are rising by $8 million every year the project is delayed.

County Commissioner Colleen Roberts said even if a jail proposal does go before voters, they may reject it due to the cost.

Sickler said residents are already bearing a financial burden from the costs of crime. The whole criminal justice system is under strain from the inadequate jail, and the county has earned a reputation as a high-crime area, he said.

“A large segment of the population wants a different outcome,” he said.

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

File photoJackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler plans to form a community panel after Ashland and Talent city councils derailed plans to put a proposal for a new jail to a countywide vote in November.