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Questions abound.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Springfield officials have complained for years that the Lane County Jail costs too much to operate and habitually releases prisoners prematurely because there's insufficient space for them at the jail.

Now, city officials have decided to stop griping and do something about it. On Monday, the City Council voted to put a $28.6 million measure on the November ballot that would build a 100-bed city jail as part of a new downtown public safety center that would also house the police department, city prosecutor's office and municipal courts.

The frustration that prompted city officials to make this move is deep and understandable. For many years, officials have tried to stop what they call the "revolving door" at the county jail, where petty criminals are routinely released because of overcrowding and inadequate funding. That's particularly galling and troublesome for Springfield, which for years has had one of the worst property-crime rates in the state. Meanwhile, the county has refused to reduce what city officials regard as excessive charges for those inmates who do remain behind bars.

But Springfield officials must answer several critical questions before the fall election if they expect city voters to approve the public safety measure.

The first concerns costs. City officials estimate that it will cost taxpayers about $1.4 million a year to run the proposed jail, but the measure approved by the council would provide money only for construction - not for operations. The city hopes to realize about $735,000 a year in increased revenue primarily from fines and leasing vacant jail space to other cities. But that still leaves a gap of at least $665,000 for a city government that is habitually underfunded and has spent down its reserves in recent years.

Council members took the unusual step of adding language to the measure to make it clear that the jail portion of the public safety complex will not be built unless the city can come up with a plan for operational funding.

That's a sensible precaution. But before the city asks voters to approve this measure, officials should explain where operating funds will come from and show that its cost estimates are accurate.

The Lane County sheriff's office estimates that it will cost $2.5 million a year to run the jail, a finding that Springfield officials dismiss as "erroneous." Perhaps. But city officials should prove their case.

Springfield officials must also explain to voters why it makes sense for the city to build its own jail at a time when a major portion of existing county corrections capacity is vacant because of budget cuts. Why wouldn't it make more sense for the city to hammer out a deal with the county that would enable it to take a portion of the money it would use to build and operate a jail and use it to lease, buy or borrow some of the county's unused capacity?

While there has been little public discussion to date, county officials are exploring the idea of asking voters to approve a countywide special district for public safety, a proposal that potentially could provide the stable, dedicated funding necessary to stop the revolving door at the county jail. With commissioners just beginning to discuss this idea, does it make sense for Springfield to build a jail now when a solution to the city's corrections problems may be around the corner?

Springfield officials are justified in seeking ways to make certain that crimes are punished in their city, especially given the county's amply demonstrated inability to perform that core public safety function. Without the ability to make sure people who do the crime serve the time, it's hard to see how meaningful progress can be made in reducing the city's unacceptably high crime rate.

In the coming weeks, Springfield officials must answer these and other questions about the new public safety measure. Until they do, voters should be cautious about this bold proposal.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Springfield officials must make case for new jail
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 20, 2004
Previous Article:'The answer is no'.
Next Article:Unknowns surround new prison directives.

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