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Jail proposal will go to voters in May

Jackson County voters will have their say on whether they want to create a jail district and pay for a new $170.9 million jail.

By a vote of 2-1, Jackson County commissioners voted Wednesday to put the jail proposal on the May 19 ballot.

“It’s time for the people to decide for themselves,” said Commissioner Rick Dyer, who joined Commissioner Bob Strosser in voting to put the issue to voters.

Citing her concerns about increasing property taxes on low-income and fixed-income residents, Commissioner Colleen Roberts voted against the move.

“It’s a huge amount to a lot of people,” she said.

A new Jackson County Law Enforcement Service District would cost 87 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $169.32 a year for the owner of a home assessed at $194,200 — the county average.

Over 20 years, the district would raise $512 million in new taxes that would pay for construction plus the increased costs of operating a larger jail, according to County Administrator Danny Jordan.

The county would continue to contribute baseline jail operating costs, plus spend $66 million to help pay for the jail.

Inmates are regularly released due to overcrowding from the current jail in downtown Medford. Although it has 346 beds, the jail fills up when it has 315 inmates. That’s because not every bed can be used. Dangerous inmates, for example, must be kept alone without cellmates, Jordan said.

The proposed new jail along Highway 62 would have 800 beds, but about 650 of those would be used, Jordan said.

Most people who spoke Wednesday at a public hearing about the proposal said they opposed the jail proposal.

Ashland resident Caren Caldwell, a member of the Southern Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said people experiencing mental health crises are either taken to jail or local emergency rooms.

Caldwell said the community needs a 24-hour crisis center, which could provide intervention at a lower cost. She also advocated for other mental health services, including street outreach and faster appointments for mental health care.

Caldwell said the entire community needs to join forces to support the services, including law enforcement and organizations that manage Oregon Health Plan physical and mental health benefits.

Jackson County Mental Health operates a crisis center during business hours on weekdays and has counselors available around the clock to help police dealing with mentally ill people. Police have also received training to handle situations involving mentally ill people.

Other residents also agreed more resources need to be put into mental health and addiction treatment.

Dyer said the idea has spread that county officials want to throw all mentally ill people in jail.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.

Dyer said most crimes aren’t committed by mentally ill people. He said the community can support both a larger jail plus improved mental health and addiction services.

Jordan noted the state of Oregon is responsible for mental health care and provides approximately $43 million to organizations that manage Oregon Health Plan benefits for county residents. The county government receives only about $7 million to provide crisis care and other limited services.

Before the Great Recession, the county, local hospitals and other groups formed plans to open a 24-hour mental health crisis center. Then economic troubles hit and the county lost most of its state-funded contracts to provide a range of mental health services.

“We want more mental health and addiction services,” Jordan said, but he noted the state and organizations managing Oregon Health Plan benefits hold the purse strings.

Some residents said they favor a larger jail.

Medford resident Jacqueline Glynn said criminals have received the message they won’t be held long in Jackson County’s jail. Glynn said she would accept higher taxes to feel safer on the streets.

Former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office captain Ed Mayer of Shady Cove said the current jail opened in 1981 with a design that allowed for additional floors to be added later. But then earthquake building standards changed, making more floors impossible.

“It was inadequate at the time I retired in 2003. It’s still inadequate,” Mayer said.

Jackson County Circuit Court is struggling to cope with people failing to appear for their court dates, judges have said.

In 2017, the county saw over 10,000 warrants issued for defendants failing to appear in court, and the jail had more than 7,000 lodgings of repeat offenders, according to county officials.

All voters in the county except for Talent residents will vote on the jail proposal. Talent City Council decided not to have its residents vote on the issue. Talent residents also wouldn’t pay higher property taxes if the funding district were to pass.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said the Jackson County Jail would still lodge suspects arrested in Talent. The sheriff’s office may be able to get money from Talent by charging for services it currently provides to small police departments, he said. Those services include 24-hour access to records.

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

Voters will decide whether they want a new $170.9 million Jackson County Jail during the May election.