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Prospects for jail tax dim amid coronavirus outbreak

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler is concerned that the economic turmoil triggered by the coronavirus pandemic will hurt the chances for a new jail tax on the May primary ballot.

Oregon elections officials say the election will go on thanks to the state’s vote-by-mail system.

Sickler has spent more than three years working to convince the community to pay for a bigger jail to replace the current 315-bed facility.

Except for Talent, he got majorities of local city councils and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to agree to let voters have their say on a new permanent tax that would pay for the construction and operation of a $170.9 million jail that could house up to 800 inmates.

But with first responders and the medical community preparing for a possible surge in coronavirus cases here and many businesses crippled, Sickler said this week he isn’t actively campaigning for the jail tax.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to focus on that when people are struggling with employment, food and rent,” he said.

Sickler said an election during the pandemic is unfortunate timing.

“But I don’t think this need for a larger jail will ever go away,” he said. “I wouldn’t have put it forward if I didn’t think it was important for the community.”

The proposal for a new jail taxing district was placed on the ballot while the outbreak was still a budding problem in China.

The U.S. started getting serious about the pandemic after seeing health care systems overwhelmed in other countries, including Italy.

Sickler said he hasn’t given up hope that voters will approve the new jail tax.

“People may still say it’s important to the community,” he said.

Sickler said he doesn’t want to try and put the issue back before voters on the November ballot, even if stay-at-home orders slow the spread of the virus and the country gets back on its feet.

“There’s no way. I’m not going to compete with presidential politics,” Sickler said. “I can’t imagine trying to work in a local topic with that going on on the national stage. People will focus on that. National politics are so divisive. I don’t want to be drawn into that. People need to look at it in a nonpartisan way.”

Opponents of the new jail tax say it is too expensive and will hamper the chances of other community funding measures passing far into the future, such as school construction bonds.

Opponents note many Jackson County households are already burdened by high rent and home prices. The jail tax would cost 87 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $174 annually for a home assessed at $200,000, and it would be a permanent tax.

During the first 20 years of the proposed new jail funding district, Jackson County taxpayers would pay an estimated $514 million to cover construction plus the increased operating costs of a bigger facility.

Opponents of the tax have said they would rather see more community focus on mental illness, addiction, homelessness and other issues that contribute to crime.

Meesha Blair, a representative of the Southern Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, commended Sickler for turning his focus to the COVID-19 response.

“Honestly, in my opinion, I think the new tax district was going to be a huge ask, even before the pandemic,” she said. “Now that so many people are unemployed or have severely reduced incomes, I don’t see a big tax hike as something people will vote for.”

If the funding proposal fails, it will give community partners more time to research and develop cost-saving programs used in other counties that reduce the need for jail beds, Blair said.

The NAMI chapter advocates for services such as a 24-hour mental health crisis center that could reduce the number of people going to jail, hospital emergency rooms or the psychiatric unit at Rogue Regional Medical Center.

Jackson County offers walk-in mental health crisis services during business hours and has on-call therapists available around the clock to help first responders cope with people experiencing mental health issues.

Community plans for a 24-hour mental health crisis center were a casualty of the Great Recession.

Supporters of the jail tax say a larger jail would help hold offenders accountable.

A larger jail would also reduce strain on local courts, lawyers, police and deputies, who have to deal with offenders who don’t show up for court hearings, according to proponents.

If the jail tax passes, the proposed new jail along Highway 62 would be expected to open in 2024.

Meanwhile, the Jackson County Jail is taking steps to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection among inmates and workers.

Instead of stuffing the jail, workers are spacing inmates farther apart and releasing people who pose less risk to the community, Sickler said.

“We’ve reduced the population slightly to give more space to inmates,” he said.

Jackson County already had one of the highest forced-release rates in Oregon due to overcrowding, according to statewide data.

The jail is doing more health screening of incoming inmates and stepping up efforts to sanitize the facility, Sickler said.

The facility has isolation rooms with ventilation systems that won’t spread viruses into the rest of the jail.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office has a contingency plan in place in case someone in the jail is diagnosed with coronavirus, Sickler said.

So far, there have been three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Jackson County.

Jail Commander Josh Aldrich is holding regular conference calls with jail commanders around the state.

“Everyone can bounce ideas off each other,” Sickler said. “We want to have a unified front on the best ways to manage a jail. Our jail is so full and busy normally. Our staff is mindful of community safety, inmate safety and staff safety. We are ready if things deteriorate. We have a plan in place.”

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