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Talent council votes down jail proposal

With the mayor breaking the tie, Talent City Council voted 4-3 Wednesday against letting city residents vote on a proposal to create a law enforcement service district and build a new jail.

Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood cast her vote after explaining that she wanted to see other options explored. The vote came at 10:18 p.m. after nearly 2.5 hours of questioning, testimony and deliberation.

“We can do better. We have the time to look at another mechanism,” Ayers-Flood said prior to the vote. Creation of a special district rather than a service district should be considered, she said. A special district would be governed by an elected board rather than the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Jackson County Library District, which has an elected board, is in the special category.

Jackson County has proposed creation of an 800-bed jail to replace the current 315-bed jail where inmates are regularly released due to overcrowding. Under the proposal, a new law enforcement district would build a $170 million facility and operate it with tax money that would cost $168 to $174 per year for a home assessed at $200,000.

Councilors Stephanie Dolan, John Harrison and Daria Land voted to have Talent participate in an election.

Councilors Emily Berlant, Jason Clark and Eleanor Ponomareff voted against the resolution.

Several councilors and members of the public who testified said the county needs to take a broader and more comprehensive look at addiction, mental illness and crime, and offer more options than just a bigger jail.

A recent presentation by representatives from Marion County cited cuts by the thousands in the number of people jailed there after a 24-hour mental health crisis center was opened.

“We can’t hold the Sheriff’s Office responsible for our broken mental health systems,” said Land. Jackson County Jail has the highest release rate in the state, and that needs to be fixed, and the other issues addressed also, she said.

For the current fiscal year, the Jackson County Jail has $718,000 budgeted for physical and mental health care, Sickler said.

If voters approve funding for a new jail, the estimated budget for physical and mental health care would jump to $4.3 million in the first year the newly built jail opens, he said.

"That's a substantial increase in what capabilities we'll have with our mental health and addiction services," Sickler said.

Contacted Thursday for more information, Sickler said he didn't immediately have a breakdown of what spending would be devoted to physical health care and what would be devoted to mental health and addiction treatment.

But he said the current budget for medical spending covers two mental health professionals through the private contractor Wellpath.

With new funding, Sickler said he would like to have 10 total mental health professionals. Six would work with inmates inside the jail and four would work to divert people with mental health issues from jail under the ideal scenario, he said.

“The fact that half of their council was supporting a vote of their people was encouraging to me,” Sickler said Thursday. “We can agree to disagree. I think the biggest mistake that some of their councilors have made is that this is a vote for all the citizens of the county.”

Jackson County would spend $66 million from reserve funds to help build a new jail, while about $104 million would come from bonds issued by the service district. More than 80% of revenues raised by the proposed new district would be used for jail operations, the county has said.

Talent City Council last May took no action when approached by the county about placing the issue before Talent voters, asking for more alternatives. The estimated cost of the jail has increased by $4 million since then.

Several councilors and members of the public said they were looking at basically the same proposal despite public sessions held by the Sheriff’s Office and others to look at alternatives.

During public testimony all but one of nine speakers opposed going forward with a vote. Talent resident Derek Volkart said the county is presenting a narrative about the new jail being a one-stop shop for solving a variety of issues.

“The narrative is a poor substitute for community dialogue,” said Volkart. The county should be asked for a more detailed explanation of service costs, he added.

Ashland City Council Tuesday voted to delay a decision on the measure until Dec. 3 to allow time for city officials to meet with the county to explore the proposal more. Those meetings would be held in private.

City councils in the Rogue Valley are being asked to approve two measures. The first would form a district including all of the county. The second would be for a district without Talent. If Talent does not join the district, and voters pass the jail measure, taxpayers in other local cities would pay $87 per $1,000 of assessed value rather than $84.

Phoenix Council passed the measures Nov. 4 on 4-3 votes, with Mayor Chris Luz breaking ties.

Jacksonville City Council unanimously approved both measures Nov. 5.

Eagle Point, Gold Hill and Shady Cove councils have approved a vote in their cities. Medford was scheduled to vote on the proposals Thursday.

Rogue River and Central Point will consider the measures over the next week.

In response to a question from Harrison, Sickler said the sheriff’s office provides a number of services to Talent. If the city weren’t in the service district, he would need look at those services so that amiable relations are maintained with cities that are paying for services.

After all of the local city councils make their decisions about sending the measure to their voters, the county commissioners will hold public hearings about placing the proposal on the May ballot.

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

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