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Medford city council scrutinizes jail proposal

Medford City Council grilled Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler Thursday evening about details of a proposed $170.9 million, 800-bed jail project.

The council, representing the city that uses the jail the most, will vote Dec. 19 whether to allow the proposed measure to go before Medford voters.

At a council study session, Councilor Kay Brooks told the sheriff she believes the council has a responsibility to its taxpayers to ensure the proposal is properly vetted, and said she was concerned about signing off on a so-called “Taj Mahal of a jail” when residents have other concerns that need to be addressed, such as homelessness.

“This isn’t a Taj Mahal, it’s a very middle-of-the-road facility,” Sickler said.

The project would cost taxpayers 87 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value, according to earlier news reports.

Brooks asked the sheriff what contingency was in place if the county sees another housing market crash like the region saw in 2008.

“Right now, property values are almost at the ceiling,” Brooks said.

She pointed to Measure 50, passed by Oregon voters in 1997, which set permanent tax rate limits for all property in the county.

In a written response to the council, Sickler said the county expects assessed property values to rise by at least 3% every year for the foreseeable future.

Brooks touched on a spring 2018 Jackson County survey that showed only 27% of respondents supported a jail district. She asked Sickler, why not a levy?

Sickler said a levy wouldn’t be “ideal” because it would hamper his ability to recruit staff. Funding would perpetually go in front of voters, putting operation costs in a "constant state of flux."

The jail taxing district would incorporate the operational and construction costs together, Sickler said. It’s designed so that as the district pays down the construction costs, the district will have more in the budget to cover the increased staffing the jail will eventually need.

Sickler said the proposal is designed so it won’t include “increases or asks.” About $10 million per year is set aside for construction and mental health service costs.

Although the goal is to build an 800-bed jail, Sickler said the full capacity wouldn’t be used all at once. The jail is designed to have a 650-bed capacity once it’s operational with room to grow as the county’s population expands.

“Our goal isn’t to fill the jail,” Sickler said. “It’s to have enough resources that we don’t have to fill our jail.”

The current jail, built in 1981, has 315 beds, which Sickler says is undersized, leading to a “revolving door” that leads to recidivism.

In 12 months, more than 69% of the jail’s 13,413 lodgings were repeat offenders, according to numbers provided by the sheriff. On Dec. 11 alone, all but 86 of the 324 inmates booked in the jail had a single charge filed against them.

Brooks pointed to a section of the 2018 resident survey showing homelessness was "tied" with crime as the most pressing concern of local people, with mental health not much farther down the list. She expressed concern that one priority is overshadowing other ideas, such as modeling Marion County, which created a 24-hour psychiatric crisis center, or more tiny house villages to address homeless.

“Those programs are successful in their own right,” Brooks said.

Sickler said those ideas are “not mutually exclusive,” but “we need to focus on this problem.” He said he sees his responsibility as creating a facility with which other resources such as Jackson County Mental Health can “link-up.”

“All I’m trying to do is move this very important piece forward,” Sickler said.

The jail released 49.6% of inmates early in 2017 and 39.7% of inmates early in 2018, according to the sheriff.

Councilor Michael Zarosinski asked about plans for leftover acreage after the jail facility is built. Sickler said he’s open to partnerships such as a medical facility nearby, but nothing is ironed out.

The county purchased land for a new jail in October of last year.

Mayor Gary Wheeler expressed support for the project, saying he knows of no other way to pay for such a facility besides taxes, and “these things need to be funded.”

“There’s a lot of positives,” Wheeler said of the project. “I for one will support the issue.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

The current Jackson County Jail was built in 1981 and currently houses 315 inmates. Mail Tribune file photo.