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Ashland City Council will let voters decide jail proposal

Ashland City Council voted 5-1 Tuesday night to allow residents in the city to vote on a proposed new Jackson County Jail.

The move sets the stage for a county-wide vote in May 2020 on whether county residents want to raise property taxes to build a new $170.9 million, 800-bed jail along Highway 62.

Inmates are regularly released due to overcrowding at the 315-bed jail in downtown Medford.

The council’s vote was critical to the jail proposal moving forward. Without Ashland’s participation, the cost would have been too heavy on the rest of the county’s residents, Jackson County officials said.

“I’m pleased that they were able to decide this was a matter for the voters,” Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said Tuesday night after hours of public testimony.

Many residents spoke out against a bigger jail, saying the tax burden would be too onerous on Ashland residents because of the city’s higher property values. Others asked Ashland City Councilors to vote against the jail proposal and use the city’s leverage to demand more social services, especially mental health care, and a scaled-down version of a new jail.

But most councilors said they didn’t want to stand in the way of a public vote.

Councilor Dennis Slattery said it wouldn’t be right for the six-member Ashland City Council to dictate who gets to vote on key community issues.

“You don’t want us to be the people who say, ‘No. You can’t vote.’ That’s a slippery slope,” he said.

Slattery joined Councilors Stephen Jensen, Stefani Seffinger, Rich Rosenthal and Tonya Graham in voting to put the issue before voters.

Some said that didn’t mean they would personally vote for the jail proposal, but they want voters to have a choice.

Councilor Julie Akins was the sole vote against including Ashland in a potential jail district if the proposal wins approval from county voters.

She said the proposed jail is too big and too expensive, and the plan didn’t include enough community collaboration.

Critics said the county should address the root causes of crime — including mental illness, addiction and homelessness — before spending millions on a bigger jail.

Jackson County Mental Health Division Manager Stacy Brubaker detailed a host of programs the county offers to help address mental health, from support for young people showing the first signs of psychosis to crisis therapists who are available 24 hours a day to help police who encounter people suffering from mental health issues.

However, the county’s responsibility and funding to address mental health is limited.

Instead, the Oregon Health Authority funnels millions of state and federal dollars to coordinated care organizations that manage physical, mental and dental benefits for the one-in-four Jackson County residents on the Oregon Health Plan.

Those CCOs — not Jackson County Mental Health — provide most mental health services in the community by contracting with providers.

Representatives from the CCOs Jackson Care Connect and AllCare Health came to the council meeting to answer questions from councilors and the community.

Jennifer Lind, CEO of Jackson Care Connect, said the organization is working with partners such as the county government to divert people with mental illness from jail and expand community-based programs.

Since 2017, the CCO has seen a 23% increase in its Oregon Health Plan members using mental health services — a sign access is improving. Care can range from getting screened for depression during a doctor’s visit and talking to an on-site counselor, to receiving intensive services, Lind said.

She said Jackson Care Connect recognizes that addiction is a major driver of health care costs in the community, as well as a significant contributor to crime. The CCO is working to broaden access to treatment.

Lind said a broad swathe of local partners recently identified the top three priorities to improve the health of the community — mental health care including addiction treatment, housing, and parenting support plus life skills.

She said the community debate about the jail and social services has created an opportunity to have a public discussion about those three priorities.

Although the state gives the primary responsibility for mental health care to CCOs and not the county, Sickler, the sheriff, said a larger jail would provide more room and increased staffing to help people with mental illness and addiction issues.

“One thing I’ve heard loud and clear from the public is people want enhanced mental health and addiction services in the facility,” he said.

Sickler said he heard a lot of good input from people at the meeting, whether they were for or against the jail proposal. He said everyone is trying to do what is best for the community.

Sickler said community discussions will continue as people debate whether to approve funding for a bigger jail.

“As the process unfolds, I think we’ll get a better criminal justice system and better human services,” he said.

Sickler said one element that has been largely missing from the debate so far is a discussion of the impacts of crime. A few people who had been victims of crime did step forward to speak at the Ashland meeting.

“We need to think about the damage and trauma caused to crime victims,” Sickler said.

Slattery, one of the Ashland city councilors who voted to let residents vote on the issue, said the sheriff faces a big challenge in making the case to residents countywide that they should support a larger jail.

But Slattery said months of community meetings on the topic have convinced him the sheriff is committed to improving outcomes for people who spend time in jail.

Talent City Council voted in November to opt out of the jail district by not having Talent voters weigh in on the issue.

Without Talent’s participation, the jail would cost everyone else in the county 87 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $174 per year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.

With Talent’s participation, the jail would cost 85 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $170 per year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.

At the sheriff’s request, Ashland City Council approved resolutions regarding two jail district boundaries — one including Talent and one without Talent.

Sickler said he wants to keep both options open in case Talent city councilors change their minds.

The jail proposal is scheduled to go before Medford City Council Dec. 19.

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

Inmates are regularly released from the 315-bed Jackson County Jail due to overcrowding. Mail Tribune file photo.