GOLD BEACH – Josephine County released dozens of inmates from the county jail this week due to budget shortages, but it could be much worse for Curry County a year from now, Sheriff John Bishop said.
“Come June 30 of next year, as of right now, we will release everybody from our jail,” Bishop said.
“It’s really sad that we have to do that,” he said. “I know that talking to Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson, it was one of the last things that he wanted to do, but there was no other choice.”
Gilbertson released 39 inmates, leaving 30 local inmates and another pod of 30 that houses federal prisoners under contract.
The most common charges of those released were for drug crimes, minor assaults, burglary, identity theft and probation violations.
“We did keep the worst of the worst” – those facing charges for crimes that carry mandatory prison sentences – said Jail Commander Vicki Smith.
The sheriff’s office already closed its major crimes unit and records division, reduced its K-9 unit to one dog and will drastically reduce patrol deputies – going from about 25 road deputies to six, three of whom work on contract to patrol specific areas.
Reducing the jail population is part of Josephine County’s response to voter defeat of a law enforcement property tax levy in the May primary. That levy would have funded the sheriff’s office, district attorney and juvenile justice program. It would have increased the county government property tax rate by $1.99 per $1,000 of assessed value. The rate now, 58 cents per $1,000, is the state’s lowest.
Curry County’s property tax to fund county government is a cent higher than Josephine’s at 59 cents.
“The issue we have that they don’t is, while their tax rate is lower than ours, they have a bond rate they also pay on,” Bishop said. “They were forced to build a new jail.”
That modern jail is on a pod system, where the jail can be shut down sections of the jail. Curry County’s old jail doesn’t have that option.
“We are not able to just close a pod down. We are at the minimum of staffing. If we have one or 50 inmates, we have the same amount of staff,” Bishop said. “If there is no money, we would have to shut it down and everybody would be let go.”
Another advantage of the Josephine County jail is that if money is found in the future, they can reopen the closed pods.
“We don’t have that option,” Bishop said.
The Curry County jail does not meet federal standard, but it is grandfathered in, Bishop said. That grandfather clause would go away if the jail does not remain open.
“If we close this jail, it will cost us millions to reopen a jail in Curry County,” he said.
The Curry County Budget Committee has approved a budget taking $350,000 from the vehicle replacement fund, $700,000 from the County Road fund and $450,000 from the county’s working capital to keep the county operational until July 1, 2013.
That was after they rejected a last minute move to not use those funds, leaving the county broke in March.
County commissioners are scheduled to formally adopt the budget on their last meeting of the fiscal year, scheduled for June 20.
That budget uses up the county’s reserve fund and the last of the timber replacement funds approved by Congress came last year.
The county’s general fund budget for the current year is $5.1 million. Income projected from property taxes and fees for next year is $2.1 million.
County commissioners were considering placing a 3 percent sales tax on a special election ballot, hoping that could be approved in time to complete the year. But with using those other funds, they have delayed that election.
After Commissioner Bill Waddle and Commissioner George Rhodes failed to make the runoffs following the Primary Election, they blamed it on their proposal for a new tax.
All other candidates had opposed more taxes.
Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman said the jail situation has been a discussion around City Hall.
“How far is Curry County from the same situation? Also, if the Curry County jail is closed (either through financial collapse or because it is deemed unsafe) where do arrestees go? One option that had been informally discussed was to take prisoners to Josephine County; no longer an option,” Milliman said.
“I was on ride-along several weeks ago with one of our new officers, who came over from the J County Sheriff’s Department,” Milliman said.
“We had an instance that night with an intoxicated homeless man who was trespassing. After spending about 20-30 minutes trying to coax the man to move on, the officers took him to jail,” Milliman said.
“The officer I was riding with commented that it was good to at least have a resource to take someone who could not care for themselves or who had committed an offense like shoplifting off the street and that he was surprised that Curry County jail was still taking non-felony arrestees; that J County had ceased taking non-felony arrestees some time ago,” Milliman said.
Without another source of income, Bishop says there will be no way to leave the Curry County jail open.
“You watch. If this happens, people are in total shock. How did this happen?” Bishop said.
“It just will amaze you. It was talked about before I was sheriff. Since I’ve been here, it’s always been a topic. If we don’t find a revenue source, it will happen. So far we haven’t found citizens willing to pay,” he said.
“What functions we keep will depend on what commissioners give me. We’ll have to make decisions from there,” Bishop said. “That’s exactly what Gil did.”
Bishop said Curry County is not the only one facing a situation similar to Josephine County’s.
“Lane County is one, Linn County is another one. All of the counties with O&C revenue issues are facing similar decisions,” Bishop said.