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Officials optimistic about jail funding.

Byline: Matt Cooper The Register-Guard

The chances are "improving every day" that Lane County will fund restoration of some capacity at the county jail with help from the city of Eugene and perhaps others, embattled county board chairman Pete Sorenson said Friday.

Sorenson cited the city's offer of support earlier this week, and other hopeful budgetary news, as reasons the county board and county budget committee may reverse their controversial decision this week not to spend $3.2 million in federal timber payments to hire 30 corrections staff and expand jail capacity in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Staff shortages at the jail prompt the county to release thousands of inmates early. But Sorenson and a majority of the county board and budget committee have said they don't want to spend reauthorized federal timber payments to restore jail capacity until more is known about future county funding from the state and other sources.

Sorenson on Friday, however, said he was buoyed by the offer of the city of Eugene budget committee to exchange $1 million in city general funds for $1 million in county road funds. The county legally cannot use its road fund money for jail operations, but it can swap road fund money with other government entities and use the proceeds for the jail. Under the plan, Eugene would receive the county road fund dollars for use on city streets.

The swap would cut into the county road budget, however, which may make the trade vulnerable to criticism.

Although he has repeatedly said he's worried that future state funding to Lane County government may decline, Sorenson said Friday that the county sheriff's office believes it could receive more from the state in the coming state biennium, which starts July 1.

State funding to Lane County community corrections - which includes the jail, parole and probation and other programs - will increase by $300,000 in the coming biennium under current state proposals, the sheriff's office has said.

Given the latest news, Sorenson said, "each day it looks a little more promising" that the county will be able to increase its number of available jail beds. There are 500 beds in the Lane County Jail, but after years of cuts to deputies who supervise inmates, including steep cuts last spring, more than 150 beds aren't used.

In recent weeks, Sorenson and others opposed to using federal funds to quickly reopen jail beds have faced a storm of public criticism, as well as some vocal support.

Despite the latest encouraging news, Sorenson said he remains committed to keeping only a level of county services - including public safety - that can be maintained for years without the need to cut deeply or go to voters for a major tax hike or some other big funding infusion.

"I've always taken the view that we were going to budget for a more stable budget. We were not going to run this budget down to the point where we had to radically cut public services," he said.

In an e-mail he sent out late Thursday, Sorenson asked local mayors around the county to consider matching Eugene's offer with a loan or other support to help increase jail capacity.

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy said she supports the swap because it helps the county at no detriment to the city.

But other mayors say the county has the money - and the responsibility - to fund the jail without their help.

The renewal of federal timber payments sends $40 million to the county general fund and $50 million to the county road fund over a four-year period ending 2011-2012.

Springfield Mayor Sid Leiken said he's against an exchange, following the advice of Bill Dwyer, Springfield's representative on the county board of commissioners, who supports reopening the jail beds using county funding alone.

"Spend the money now and work with our Congressional delegation and reauthorize" more federal funding later, Leiken said.

Florence Mayor Phil Brubaker said his city doesn't have extra general fund money to swap and even if it did, the county shouldn't rely on the cities for help.

"We are dependent upon Lane County to provide the minimally adequate jail capacity to house felons," Brubaker said. "It's not the other way around."

Brubaker suggested that Eugene's support for the funding swap is based in part on Eugene's reliance on the county to hold city offenders. The vast majority of offenders housed at the jail are arrested in the Eugene-Springfield metro area.

Eugene pays separately for about a dozen beds in the county jail that are reserved for city offenders, and Piercy said that the proposed swap would not include a requirement to house more offenders who were arrested in Eugene. However, she added that the jail houses "a lot of Eugene offenders" and that the city would be well-served by additional capacity.

If the county pursues the swap with Eugene and other cities, the resulting losses to the county road fund would worsen county road work reductions expected in 2011-2012. That prospect could fuel opposition on the county board to using swaps to fund jail operations.

The impact to the road fund "is a trade-off," Sorenson said. "But I think our board would be interested in exploring that because of the seriousness of the public safety situation."

Eugene City Council President Alan Zelenka said he is glad the county commissioners are willing to reconsider the "question of reopening those jail beds."

Zelenka said it may be difficult for other cities to come up with money for a swap. "I would hope that the county commissioners would open up the beds even if all of the other cities can't come up with the money," he said.
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Title Annotation:Government Local; The county may use a combination of federal and local dollars to restore some capacity
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 23, 2009
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