INTERVIEW: Possible New Jail Locations, We Talk with Nick Kurth

Correction: Our original transcription of this interview mistakenly transcribed “Kiger” as “Tiger.” Additionally, the reporter completing the work is not from Corvallis. The error has been fixed, and our sincere apologies to Corvallisites for mistaking their road for a place in Florida.

 

Over the course of several elections, Benton County has tried to pass a bond measure to build a new justice system, but it has never won the vote. Now, the county has put Nick Kurth into the hot seat to find a way to get this done. We asked him about the goals and the drawbacks.  

TCA: I’m Sally Lehman and I’m with The Advocate. Today, we’re speaking with Nick Kurth, Benton County manager for the Justice System Improvement Program. Hi, Nick. Thank you for being here.   

Kurth: My pleasure.   

TCA: So, have you worked for Benton County for long?  

Kurth: No, that’s not really to some – two years coming up in June.  

TCA: And there is some misconception with people about what your job actually is, what you’re going to be doing for the county. Can you explain that to us?  

Kurth: Yes, well, I am the Justice Systems Improvement Program Manager. So it is my responsibility to coordinate about seven sub-projects that are all part of this larger program, and that includes facilities and supporting programs, communications site selection, the historic courthouse, as well as state funding programs. And so ultimately putting all these together for a bond measure anticipated for May of 2022, but also for interim progress along the way.  

TCA: Well, you have your hands full.  

Kurth: I have my hands full.  

TCA: There are four facilities under consideration for improvement or replacement – the correctional facility, the courthouse, the Crisis Resource Center and the sheriff’s station. Are all of this being considered as a package deal or separate entities?  

Kurth: Well, and I’ll actually throw one more facility into the mix, which is the historic courthouse as well. So really, all five are under consideration. But you did name the primary four that comprise the justice system. The only two that are really baked into what we plan to go to voters with are the correctional facility and the Crisis Resource Center.   

Now, that said, whether the Crisis Resource Center is a greenfield project or a remodel of an existing structure, that hasn’t been determined. But ultimately, the voters and even, I should just say, the public in general will decide which of those facilities get advanced to a bond measure. And I’m about to kick off – or the county is about to kick off – a very broad public engagement and outreach period beginning this summer that will ask those very questions.  

TCA: What research has been undertaken to arrive at the current set of options for these various improvements?  

Kurth: Well, that’s something that I think the county has invested in heavily. And so it began way back in 2017 when the county and the board of commissioners commissioned an assessment of the entire criminal justice system. And that was published in January of 2019. It’s on the website if you search on justice system on the Benton County website you will find your way to it. It’s about 140 pages of study and recommendations. And that really became the foundation for the next phase of this program, which is what I’m managing.   

The second phase is what we call pre-design. So we’re now designing what we hope to build – what we want to build. And so that effort… was conducted by a consultant called CGL, that’s the type of work they do. In this second phase, [for] pre-design, we’ve hired DLR Group, which is a design and engineering firm, to do many of the tasks associated with facilities and site selection that have… put these facilities… up for consideration.  

TCA: Which are these different places are you considering actually replacing?  

Kurth: Well, at this point we’re considering replacing all five.   

Now, it’s probably not financially possible. And I think you’re aware that, and I’ve shared this publicly, that we’re roughly shooting a bond measure amount of $100 million. We’d like to stay under 100. We’re looking for ways to dramatically reduce it.   

But ultimately, when we go through this public engagement process this summer, the community will say what’s worth having and what’s not. And so we could potentially end up with a correctional facility and crisis resource center, or we could potentially end up with a new courthouse as well. We could have that, plus a law enforcement building for the sheriff’s department. So, again, that decision will be made based on public feedback.  

TCA: Aren’t repairs being made to the historic courthouse already?  

Kurth: Well, I would say the historic courthouse is being maintained. I think that’s probably more accurate.   

But the repairs that are contemplated really relative to continuing to use the courthouse and in a safe manner are much more substantial and seismic. Seismically, that structure is not safe. And if the county wants to continue to use the courthouse for a justice systems purpose, the Board of Commissioners has pretty much decided that the seismic upgrades are necessary. There’s other upgrades that are necessary, as well.   

And so… we need to test that with the public because, frankly, if you were to have the… district attorney in a new courthouse versus housing the district attorney in the historic courthouse, it’s a less expensive solution.  

TCA: So currently, Benton County has a temporary jail. How long if we had a temporary jail?  

Kurth: Well, the temporary jail was built in 1976, so we’re at 45 years. If the bond measure passes, and I hope it does, we’re looking at about five years from now to doors open on a new facility.   

So, we will have gotten 50 years out of our temporary jail, which is pretty amazing. I mean, it’s amazing in that we’ve gotten by with the very limited capacity. Those buildings are meant to last 50 years, generally 40-50 years. But the fact that we’ve gotten by with the limited capacity dating back that many years is amazing. I mean, surprising [and] our metrics reflect it.  

TCA: And the population has grown since the temporary jail was put in place.  

Kurth: Yeah, I’m not a population expert. I did a little research and preparation for today, but when it was built, we had roughly 60,000 people in Benton County [and] we’re at about 93,000 today. By 2040, we’re looking at 100,000 that’s what’s projected. I’m betting it’ll be even more. But yeah, so dramatic population growth without a commensurate increase in the size of our local county jail.  

TCA: Looking at the different options of what this bond may cover, what do you think would best meet the growth expectations for Benton County?  

Kurth: Well, you mean relative to the correctional facility? Or do you mean all of the facilities?   

TCA: All of them. When we consider the five buildings that you’re talking about, and we’re looking at the growth curve that we’re looking at, which options really are going to be the best payoff? 

 Kurth: Well, I mean, frankly, all of the facilities that are under contemplation are terribly antiquated and/or bursting at the seams in terms of capacity. And that’s not just the jail. The current law enforcement building that is jointly occupied by the sheriff’s office and Corvallis Police department is just literally bursting at the seams. And Corvallis is looking at solutions. We’re looking at a solution.   

And so, were we to construct a new law enforcement building, that’s really a boon to the city as well, because they would stay in the current location and it would be sufficient in size. So it solves two problems there.   

The courthouse, of course, is an historic courthouse [and] was built in 1888 and terribly undersized, not ADA compliant. Compliance needs lots of mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades. And then add to that it’s not seismically safe, so it does not serve the county’s needs anymore as well.   

And then a crisis resource center we don’t have, and it’s just critically important to the success of any justice system – behavioral health, mental health, play such a strong role in adults who are involved in the justice system.   

So which one is best? I can’t say. They all work together. Frankly, I very much would like to see all four on the ballot, find ways to put it on the ballot, but make it affordable. Stay under that $100 million mark, if you can. But they all work together. So to cut any one loose is tough.  

TCA: Currently, we rent beds at NORCOR. Is that a problem?  

Kurth: No, it’s not a problem. NORCOR is … quite a good facility and it has lots of good programs.   

But what is lacking is that adults who are in custody have families, they have friends, they have loved ones, they have siblings. And these inmates are being transported up to The Dalles to be housed at NORCOR. And then there’s just the idea of twice a week running a van with two deputies – this is week after week after week – obviously not a great environmental solution, [and the] potential safety issues.   

But mostly it’s about running our own facility, and keeping people that are involved in the justice system, who we want to provide opportunities to and rehabilitate and educate, closer to home and managing those processes so that hopefully we can lower our recidivism rate and have more returning to the community and not returning to the justice system.  

TCA: What sites are you looking at for the new jail?  

Kurth: Well, we have a site in South Corvallis. It’s 65 acres of grassland, essentially all wetlands – it’s farmed as grassland. It’s on the west side of 99 at Kiger Island Road – if you were to extend Kiger Island Road west across Highway 99, you would be on this piece of property. It’s at the edge of the Corvallis city limits, but within the urban growth boundary. So that’s one suburban site.   

We are trying to purchase a contiguous half-block in downtown Corvallis. That’s not enough space for a correctional facility or a law enforcement building, but it could potentially be home to a new courthouse and crisis resource center. So [we’re] pursuing that.   

And then finally, we have a site out [in] Western Corvallis on Reservoir Road, one or two sites adjacent to the fairgrounds.  

TCA: So this bond has come up for a vote before at various price levels, and this time you’re asking for the most money ever at $100 million. What makes you feel that this is going to pass?  

Kurth: Well, I’m an optimist, obviously. Yeah, I mean, it’s a big ask, and I want to again underline that [it’s] based on public feedback this summer. If we’re hearing there’s no way then, we’ll trim it back.   

I will say that it’s an investment in the future. It’s an investment in the next 50 years. All of the facilities being contemplated are essentially at their end of life. So we’re going to have to cross this bridge one way or another in the near future, whether it’s ala carte, one piece at a time, or all together.   

TCA: All right, thank you for your time and thank you for our listeners and readers for their time. Have a good day.  

Kurth: Again, my pleasure. Thank you.   

By Sally K Lehman