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Measure 20-91.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Springfield officials are fed up with the revolving door at the Lane County Jail - so fed up they're asking city residents to pay $28.7 million to build a new downtown public safety center that would include a 100-bed jail.

City officials' willingness to add $14.5 million jail to their their long-planned proposal to replace the city's police station and municipal court - an addition that doubles the project's cost - amply illustrates the depth of their frustration with the county's dysfunctional corrections system.

The steady deterioration of that system - the county jail has closed 119 jail beds in recent years and has reduced capacity at its rural work camp - has undermined the city's efforts to confront property crime.

Though city pays $165,000 annually to the county for use of jail beds, Springfield officials say 88 percent of suspects that they book into the county jail are released within 24 hours - 99 percent within 48 hours.

Once released, most defendants fail to appear in municipal court, costing the city nearly $600,000 in lost officer time and other costs. More disturbingly, the county's inability to hold on to prisoners has handcuffed Springfield's efforts to deal with the fourth highest property crime rate for Oregon cities with populations of more than 10,000.

Last week's arrest of serial arson suspect David Robert Franz is a prime example. Police note that Franz has been arrested 91 times since 1996. Not surprisingly, Mayor Sid Leiken and other city officials have used Franz's case to urge voters to approve Measure 20-91 on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Springfield officials feel so strongly about the need for a jail that they are taking a substantial risk by adding it to what would otherwise be an uncontroversial public safety measure. The city's desperate need for new police and courthouse facilities is clear. The existing police building was built in 1949 and is badly deteriorated and costly to maintain. Space is so inadequate that police have to lease outside space to store seized evidence and property.

A survey conducted by the city earlier this year indicated that a clear majority of voters would support replacing existing police and court facilities. By nearly doubling the cost of such facilities to add a jail, officials risk seeing the proposal rejected by voters concerned about the overall cost. Measure 20-91 would add about $131 in taxes for the owner of a $150,000 home. Without the jail, the facility would have cost the same homeowner roughly $85.

Some voters may also be concerned about jail operating costs, which are not included in the measure. City officials estimate the jail would cost about $1.4 million a year to operate, a figure that county corrections officials have said is too low. While city officials defend their estimates, they have pledged not to build the jail until the city has identified necessary operating funds.

City officials say there's also a possibility that the new jail will never be built - or bonds issued to pay for its construction. That could happen, officials say, if the county finds a way to expand its jail capacity and meet the the city's corrections needs. County commissioners recently began discussions about the creation of a countywide public service district that would address the shortage of adult jail beds and other public safety concerns.

Springfield officials say that's unlikely, and they're probably right. County commissioners are already divided on the idea of a public safety district, and their track record of convincing voters to approve even the most modest of ballot measures has been abysmal in recent years. Meanwhile, the county's failure to provide adequate corrections services hardly inspires confidence that it can or will do so in the future.

County officials rightly observe that the shortage of local jail beds is part of a larger, more complex crisis in the region's criminal justice system - and they question the wisdom and efficacy of one local government trying to deal with corrections needs on its own.

Those are sound observations, but they do nothing to resolve Springfield's urgent need to put - and keep - its criminals behind bars. The reality is that the county has consistently failed Springfield and other communities by failing to provide and adequate corrections capacity, and there's little reason to hope that will change soon.

Faced with the choice of either accepting the unacceptable or taking decisive action, Springfield officials have chosen the latter. Their solution is far from ideal; the prospect of individual cities going their own way to address what should be a regional corrections system is not a happy one. But it's easy to see why Springfield officials feel it's neces- sary.

If Springfield voters approve Measure 20-91, the most desirable outcome would be for the county to respond by fulfilling its responsibility to provide adequate jail space and for Springfield officials to be an active, willing participant in that solution. The city's decision to put this measure on the ballot should serve as a wake-up call to county commissioners to deal with this problem - or watch desperate communities, starting with Springfield, take matters into their own hands and develop their own solutions.

The Springfield council's decision to include a jail in its proposed public safety facility was a bold move, one that puts a glaring spotlight on the county's failure to meet the corrections needs of local com- munities.

Springfield voters should approve Measure 20-91.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Springfield needs new public safety facility
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 9, 2004
Words:905
Previous Article:LETTERS IN THE EDITOR'S MAILBAG.
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