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Costs for proposed jail keep rising

The estimated cost of a new Jackson County Jail went up by $4.3 million while the community argued about whether to fund a bigger facility.

Back in the spring, the cost to build a new 800-bed jail was estimated at $166 million, including $6 million the county had already spent for land along Highway 62.

The estimated price tag now stands at $170.3 million, according to new figures Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan presented to Jackson County commissioners during a Thursday discussion with Sheriff Nathan Sickler.

Jordan and Sickler had previously warned that costs for construction, materials, architectural work and engineering would continue to rise the longer building a new jail is pushed into the future.

Inmates are regularly released from the 315-bed jail due to overcrowding.

Sickler made the rounds to local city councils in the spring, asking them to support putting a countywide funding measure before voters in November that would raise $100 million through a service district to build the jail. Jackson County agreed to use reserves to pay for the remaining $66 million.

But the city councils in Ashland and Talent balked at the proposal.

Without the participation of the two cities — especially Ashland, due to its larger size — the measure would have become too expensive for the remaining cities in the county to shoulder alone, county officials said at the time.

With everyone participating, the cost would have been 84 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $168 per year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000. The taxes would have covered jail construction costs, plus the increased annual costs of operating a larger jail, which would start at about $15.5 million if the jail opened in 2024.

Sickler now hopes to put a new measure before voters in the May 2020 election.

He’ll go back around to city councils, this time with two proposals.

The first proposal, which would require all cities to participate, would cost 85 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $170 per year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.

The second proposal assumes Talent City Council will again refuse to let the issue go before its voters. With Talent not paying into the district, the cost would be 87 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on everyone else.

That equates to $174 annually for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.

Sickler said he hopes he can convince Ashland City Council to refer the issue to its voters.

Back in the spring, Ashland City Council voted 3-2 not to refer the new taxing district. Some councilors said they want to see more focus on addressing problems that lead to crime. They suggested the sheriff work with community members to retool the idea and try for a vote in May 2020.

“I hope I can get a different result with Ashland,” Sickler said of his plans to return to city councils to discuss the issue. He said a jail funding district might not be financially feasible without Ashland’s participation.

Talent City Council didn’t vote on the issue back in the spring, but most councilors and the mayor said they also wanted more to be done about root causes of crime, including addiction, mental health issues, homelessness and lack of economic opportunity.

Talent city councilors also worried about the cost. And because Talent is so small, they were concerned their residents would be swept along by a countywide majority.

Sickler said Talent councilors seemed more staunchly opposed to the proposal for a bigger jail than their counterparts in Ashland.

If Talent did not take part in the jail district, it’s unclear whether the Jackson County Jail could treat inmates arrested in Talent differently than inmates arrested elsewhere.

“Other councils have asked, ‘If we pay and they don’t, how is this fair?’” Sickler said.

Jackson County Counsel Joel Benton advised commissioners to talk behind closed doors in an executive session if they want to explore options for dealing with Talent should it choose not to participate.

County commissioners Rick Dyer and Bob Strosser endorsed Sickler’s proposal to return to city councils about a funding measure for the May 2020 ballot.

“I hope everyone in this county is allowed to vote on it,” Strosser said.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts said she remains concerned about the cost of the new jail, especially for low-income residents who are struggling to afford housing.

Roberts noted Jackson County voters are already being asked this November to approve $28 million for an overhaul of the local 911 system’s radio infrastructure.

The measure would cost 9 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — or $18 per year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.

Roberts said she is also worried about the division that could be created in the overall community if Talent is separated out of a jail funding district.

Meanwhile, Sickler said he is continuing to inform residents about work already being done to address mental health issues, addiction, homelessness and other issues by Jackson County and community organizations.

The Jackson County Jail stopped releasing inmates in the middle of the night, when they are more likely to get in trouble and don’t have access to services. Instead, they’re now released to a new resource center in the Jackson County Community Justice building on West Main Street in Medford.

People leaving jail can get employment help, learn about physical and mental health care services, talk with peer mentors and more at the resource center, Sickler said.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is working with national associations for sheriffs and counties to change how medical care is funded inside jails in America.

Currently, inmates on Medicaid, including the Oregon Health Plan, lose their health care coverage after a few days — pushing costs onto counties.

Sickler said Jackson County would be better able to provide medication that eases withdrawal symptoms and curbs cravings among addicts if they could keep their health care coverage.

Even without national changes, the jail hopes to begin offering medication-assisted addiction treatment, starting with four beds for males and four beds for females, he said.

Jackson County Circuit Court already offers special courts for people with addiction issues or mental illness.

But Sickler said perhaps it could add a community court that would fast-track the cases of low-level offenders who aren’t kept in jail before they disappear and rack up new charges.

That approach still requires a jail, because offenders who won’t comply with treatment programs face jail time in other counties that use community courts, he said.

“You need to have a robust jail and criminal justice system to support these programs,” Sickler said.

Community members recently heard a presentation from a Eugene area organization that uses crisis intervention teams made up of medics and counselors to help people dealing with addiction, mental illness and homelessness. Sickler said conversations are continuing about whether a similar model could be used here.

Jackson County has mental health crisis workers who can go out and help police on calls, but therapists aren’t teamed with medics.

This story had been updated to include information on increased annual costs for operating a larger jail.

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

The estimated cost of building a new 800-bed Jackson County Jail has gone up $4.3 million since spring. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch