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Rising costs should slam the door on Springfield jail.

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Jim Hale For The Register-Guard

Does the Springfield City Council still have a mandate to build a jail, even though estimated operating costs have skyrocketed and permanent operating funds have not yet been fully identified as promised? Do Springfield voters really want their own jail that badly?

In November 2004, city voters approved building a justice center, including a jail. A switch of 500 voters would have changed the outcome.

Perhaps the winning margin came from voters listening to Police Chief Jerry Smith, who repeatedly said Springfield didn't really want to get into the corrections business. What Spring- field wanted was action toward more jail beds by Lane County. Perhaps they heard Mayor Sid Lieken, who said in an August 2004 council meeting, "Sometimes it takes a threat to get partners to realize we need to work together."

Since that vote, the new sheriff has implemented maximum double bunking, adding 79 new county jail beds. Additionally, the county's funding proposal planned for the November ballot will add jail staff, allowing renewed use of 96 existing beds. Later expansion of the county jail to include a low-budget wing for misdemeanor offenders is possible.

Why can't Springfield now get behind county efforts and end talk of a 100-bed city jail that likely will not open before 2009 or 2010?

Perhaps that 2004 wining margin came from voters impressed by the city's claims that a city jail could be operated relatively cheaply. The initial operating cost estimate was $1.4 million.

Now the estimate is $2.4 million - a whopping 71 percent increase. Would Springfielders have voted "yes" if the true numbers had been known?

Maybe the winning margin simply came from voters who relied upon the council's solemn promise that a jail would not be built unless adequate operating funds could be identified first. From the start, there has been a shortfall ranging in high six figures.

At the low $1.4 million operating estimate, the council's first funding solution was to implement a utility tax, which voters rejected in early 2005. Jail supporters then suggested several new taxes.

The council narrowed that list to a possible five-year property tax serial levy this May. City staffers now say the annual operating shortfall will be $870,000, requiring a property tax increase of 32 cents per $1,000 or assessed valuation.

At a recent council meeting, the jail's strongest boosters, the Springfield Police Planning Task Force, urged the council to fix the shortfall by 1) imposing a $75 per business city license tax ($250,000); 2) forgo charging the city's usual general administrative overhead percentage ($250,000) and 3) just rolling the remaining $300,000 into a planned city November ballot measure already needed to renew an expiring tax levy for police and fire.

In short, the task force said the council should implement a tax that requires no vote, force reductions in other departments to cover some of the shortfall, and just forget the promise to secure prior operating funding.

The reason for the jail's winning margin may never be known. But there are plenty of reasons for Springfield voters to now say no to a jail.

First, they might ask why Springfield should go it alone. Voters might reconsider whether it makes sense to duplicate county efforts: Getting into jail administration, prisoner food service, prisoner medical service, training of corrections officers or labor negotiations for a new category of employees.

They might ask if it's fair for a city to minimize its jail costs by cherry-picking the customer base, housing only the cheap prisoners and leaving the county to pay for the expensive ones while bemoaning the county's per-prisoner operating cost.

There is even an outside chance some Springfielders might now agree with a 2004 Register-Guard editorial, which warned that building a city jail would tend to balkanize support for financing county corrections.

Voters might even want to consider siting a city justice center in a more central Springfield location rather than downtown. In the last three months, way more than half of Springfield's calls for police service came from east of 14th Street and Mohawk Boulevard. As Springfield grows eastward, that fraction can only increase.

Springfield voters might insist their city stop trying to compete with the county and instead partner to plan work space in a new city police headquarters for sheriff's deputies serving north Springfield and the Mohawk and McKenzie valleys. That would make sense for all of us.

Jim Hale of Eugene is a longtime observer of the public safety planning process and a supporter of increased funding for comprehensive public safety programs.
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 21, 2006
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