MEDFORD, Ore. — Wednesday saw the final public hearing on a $100 million proposal to partially fund the building of a new Jackson County Jail, with County Commissioners poised to vote on whether to send the jail district to May ballots.
Commissioners Rick Dyer and Bob Strosser voted in favor of sending the proposal to the ballot, while Colleen Roberts voted against. The order passed, meaning that it will now be decided by the will of the voters on the May primary ballot.
Under the current proposal, Jackson County homeowners would be deciding on a 20-year, $100 million bond — costing an estimated $0.87 per $1000 of assessed property value. Based on the current averaged assessed value for homes in Jackson County, officials estimate that the average homeowner would pay an additional $169.32 per year.
The County itself would have to contribute $66 million from reserve funds to help fund the project, and has already purchased property where the new jail would be located using about $6.6 million in reserve funds.
In addition to those opposed to new property taxes, the jail district proposal has lately received pushback from mental health advocates who say that it fails to address the mounting mental health needs in the area, substituting lengthier jail stays for real treatment.
“As long as community members continue to contact NAMI, desperate for their loved-ones to find access to mental health treatment, we cannot condone using such a large amount of taxpayer funds for just one portion of the problem,” said Meesha Blair of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southern Oregon (NAMI SO) in a statement last month.
NAMI SO has since said that it wants the County to support a 24/7 psychiatric crisis center whether the jail district goes to voters or not.
Sheriff Nathan Sickler, the main proponent of the jail, has said that the new proposal would provide greater access to substance abuse and mental health services for inmates.
"This funding will allow the construction and operation of a modern 800-bed jail, while significantly increasing our resources for addiction and mental health services," Sickler said in a statement during May of last year.
Officials at Jackson County Mental Health have voiced agreement in the past with the idea that a larger jail would improve mental health access.
Regardless, the biggest issue for supporters of the jail has been the simple matter of scale. The current building was erected in 1981 and designed to hold less than 200 inmates, when the population of Jackson County was just over 134,000. It became overcrowded in the space of just a few years, with inmates suing Jackson County in 1985 for that purpose.
The County's population has grown by almost 83,000 since the jail was built.
At current levels of incarceration, inmates of the jail are routinely released by necessity to make room for incoming inmates, often before they can be brought to trial. Thousands of inmates were "force released" over the last few years, a mind-boggling number compared to even urban Oregon counties like Multnomah.
“We’ve committed to doing our best and I think we’ve done that with this facility," said Sheriff Sickler at the first public hearing on the proposal. "But this is an opportunity for the voters to speak and for members of the public to speak and to offer their opinions whether it’s today in a hearing or at a future hearing or by the ballot box."