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Talent council will hear jail presentation

Talent City Council on Wednesday agreed to hear a presentation by Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler about a tax measure to finance building of a new jail, but it will be on its timeline.

Sickler had asked to appear at the council’s Nov. 6 session, but a majority of the council favored an appearance Nov. 20. Cost of the new facility is estimated at $170 million.

“That’s fine as long as they are willing to give me an opportunity to come back,” said Sickler. A proposal would need to go to the county Board of Commissioners by Jan. 2 to get on the May ballot. Eleven municipalities in the county need to decide whether they will let the issue go to their voters, he said.

Talent City Council took no action last year after Sickler appeared with a similar proposal, while Ashland City Council refused to let its residents vote on the proposal to create a new taxing district to pay for building and operating the jail. The county did not go ahead with a November ballot measure. Both councils said they wanted to see more done to address the root causes of crime, including addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty.

“I think that this is very premature. I think we don’t have enough information to make a decision,” said Councilor Eleanor Ponomareff, who has attended all sessions of a community group that has been learning about the criminal justice system and looking at alternatives in addition to a jail to deal with crime.

“We should think about our citizens as well as (the county’s) concerns,” said Ponomareff.

Talent City Manager Sandra Spelliscy told the council it appeared that Sickler wanted to approach Talent and Ashland first to see whether they would agree to place the measure before their citizens.

“This is their timeline,” said Spelliscy. Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood said it appeared the county wanted an “up or down vote” on the proposal.

Sickler is advocating for a new 800-bed, $170.3 million jail. Inmates are regularly released from the current 315-bed jail due to overcrowding. The sheriff has proposed two alternatives. The first proposal would have all cities participate and would cost 85 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $170 per year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000. In the second proposal, should Talent City Council refuse to let the issue go before its voters, the tax cost would be 87 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on everyone else in the county.

Anywhere from 30 to 50 people showed up for four meetings that were held starting in July for an informal jail advisory steering group, said Sickler. They included social service and mental health workers, city council members, the media and interested residents. He said the meetings were two-way, with presentations and the taking of ideas.

“People really understand there is a need for an updated and enlarged facility. At least we were able to begin a conversation,” said Sickler. The current jail lacks space to house programs that might aid inmates in transition, he said.

A smaller, more focused group held an initial meeting earlier this month and will meet again in October and twice a month thereafter. About eight people attended the first session, and Sickler envisions six to 15 regular members. All 70 people on the larger group’s list were contacted and asked whether they wanted to serve.

“We’ll be trying to figure out ways to better support the criminal justice system locally,” said Sickler. Among things it may look at is how the county would proceed in case the bond measure is not on the ballot or if it fails.

Sickler gave a presentation to the council Oct. 2, where he reported that crime in Medford had gone up during a period when the jail basement space had been closed, and then crime went down when it reopened in May of 2017.

Councilor John Harrison said he favored having the presentation Nov. 6. Councilors Ponomareff, Jason Clark and Emily Berlant said they wanted the Nov. 20 date. Councilor Stephanie Dolan had no preference, and Councilor Darina Land was absent.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

The National Institute of Corrections says the Jackson County Jail has a capacity problem. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]