Will Voters Support a New Jail?

By Patrick Fancher

P1060775The Benton County Jail is literally falling apart: crumbling walls, lack of space, significant sewage and health care risks, the list goes on. It’s also currently not up to fire code.

The county has twice put new jail measures on the ballot and both times voters responded with a resounding “no, thank you.” Although an advisory vote at the time indicated voters weren’t completely against a new jail, said Benton County Sheriff Scott Jackson.

“Our last endeavor indicated the public very much supported a new jail, however, they did not support the price of the jail and the cost of the operations levy we proposed at that time. We have since worked very hard to identify a cost-effective design that reduces labor costs, thereby eliminating the operation levy that was needed with the last endeavor,” he said.

A new jail for Benton County would require an estimated $20 million to build, depending on the site, according to Rick Osborn, Benton County Public Information Officer. The jail would also be paid for with a bond measure, which would be repaid over time, rather than a levy. In other words, if there is to be a new proposal it may be materially different than those of the past.

“This is an estimate that is being reviewed now with designers for adaption to local sites under consideration and to ensure all local costs and needs are considered,” Osborn said. “Once this is complete we will calculate options for debt service and impact on tax rates. We are working on budget estimates to run the facility at this time.”

How will the county get the go-ahead from voters for this much-needed new jail after past efforts were rebuffed? Willamette Valley-based public relations firm Funk/Levis & Associates is creating an outreach effort so voters will support a new jail measure on the May 2015 ballot.

Some voters have criticized spending taxpayer funds on a public relations campaign to land a new jail. They see it as a waste of money, considering the community has shown reluctance to pay for new jail propositions in the past.

County officials believe the public relations contract is due diligence to make certain a ballot measure is likely to pass because the community wants and is willing to pay for it. The Board of Commissioners will ultimately decide if the measure has enough public support to end up on the May 2015 ballot.

Osborn says the public outreach is starting now with a contract that is broken into several phases with an option to terminate it at the conclusion of any phase. Some of the first steps will include background research, focus groups, polling, and community discussions.

“The entire scope of the contract, if it is carried through to completion, would be around $100,000. If we see for some reason that the effort is not effective or based on findings in the research phases, we can determine whether we would like to move forward,” Osborn said. In other words, the county can cancel this contract without spending nearly the total amount.

The latest jail proposal would provide 110 to 120 beds for inmates, including additional ones for work-release programs. A site identification committee is considering possible jail locations near the Corvallis Airport and just outside of Philomath.

The cost to house an inmate at the current jail is $150 per day, mostly due to poor design, according to Sheriff Jackson. He believes in a new jail it would cost as low as $60 to $65 a day. And if a new jail proposal passes, a more efficient design approach with a new facility could utilize fewer deputies to track more inmates.

Sheriff Jackson puts it plainly: “I have never provided a tour to community members where the group did not overwhelmingly voice their concern about the need for a new jail.”