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County jail levy has 'split' chance of passage, says commissioner

Posted: Tuesday, Mar 12th, 2013

By Jon Stinnett

The Cottage Grove Sentinel

Budget woes experienced by Lane County in the past few years have led to a revolving door of sorts at the county jail, where a matrix system is used to determine which inmates are deemed a lesser danger to the public and are thus more likely to be released early.

Last week, according to Sgt. Carrie Carver of the Lane County Sheriff’s Department, 110 such inmates were released, bringing the total of ‘capacity based releases’ to 857 so far this calendar year. Most of the releases were defendants awaiting trial, according to Carver.

Recently, the Lane County Board of Commissioners opted for a countywide levy to fund jail operations in an effort to stem the outflow of early-release inmates. On May 21, voters will decide whether to pay a levy of $.55 per $1000 of assessed property value to fund the jail. The levy is targeted solely toward the jail, though $.05 will be used to fund youth detentions at the Serbu Youth Campus in Eugene. Much of the estimated $13 million the levy could potentially raise would be spent on the payroll necessary to staff the jail, according to East Lane County Commissioner Faye Stewart, who dropped by the Sentinel last week to discuss the levy.

Stewart said the ballot language for the levy is finished and stated that a conversation among the County Commissioners was scheduled for this week to decide whether or not to place information about the levy in a voter’s pamphlet prepared by the City of Eugene for a levy it is seeking.

Stewart said the state of Oregon will not produce a pamphlet for the levy, adding that the County would likely print more pamphlets for voters living outside Eugene.

According to Stewart, the majority of public feedback gleaned from recent public hearings on the levy indicates that many voters support a levy dedicated specifically to jail operations that includes accountability for its collection and use.

If implemented, the levy would bring the number of available jail beds in the County up to 255, a number common before the financial crash of 2008. The jail is currently only staffed to fill about 120 beds. The first year of the levy is expected to create a surplus that would be used to staff the jail in subsequent years, and Stewart said monies from the general fund will still be budgeted for staffing.

The levy could affect other property tax levies in the County, Stewart said, due to the “compression” that occurs as a result of Measures 5 and 50, which mandate an upper property tax limit of $10 per $1000 per household. After that threshold is reached, the two levies affected lose an equal amount of funding.

Due to compression, Stewart said, South Lane County Fire & Rescue would lose about $20,000 in funding if the county levy passes. Overall, about $280,000 in compression loss is expected, half of that being lost by the county levy itself.

The County currently spends about 58 percent of its funds on public safety, and Stewart said he hears criticism “all the time” from those who believe more money should be spent on treatment and prevention programs for inmates than on keeping them in jail.

For the complete article see the 03-13-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 03-13-2013 paper.

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