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What next in Springfield?

Byline: The Register-Guard

Springfield voters overwhelmingly rejected the city's new utility tax in Tuesday's election, but that shouldn't be interpreted as a rejection of the planned city jail the operation of which the tax was supposed to fund.

Voters said no to the utility tax in part because its revenues were not irrevocably dedicated to jail operations; all it would have taken is a City Council vote for the money to be used for another purpose. Another factor was the city's puzzling decision to enact the tax just weeks after voters approved the new public safety complex last November, even though the jail phase won't be completed for at least three years.

But the biggest reason Spring- field residents supported the repeal was that they're simply not in the mood for any new taxes, particularly one that added 5 percent to already-hefty cell phone bills. Voters probably would have drop-kicked the utility tax even if revenues were firmly dedicated to jail operations and if groundbreaking were slated for next week.

Now, the council should take a deep, cleansing breath, exhale slowly and remember that city voters approved a new jail, and they understand that running it will cost money. The city's task now is to find a better way to pay for operating a jail, which most Springfield residents agree is needed to deal with the city's crime problems and overcrowding at the Lane County Jail.

Ironically, the city's best hope may rest with the county - the same county that failed to meet Springfield's corrections needs. That failure prompted the city a year ago to take the bold step of proposing to build a municipal jail.

The glacier that is county government is finally inching toward a solution to its corrections problems. County officials are considering formation of a countywide public safety district that would raise between $30 million and $40 million to supervise now-empty jail beds and fund an array of other public safety services. A draft of the proposal includes a $1 million annual allocation for the new Springfield jail, two-thirds of the projected operations cost.

If - and it's a big if - the county clears the numerous hurdles to putting the proposal on the November 2006 ballot and if -and this if is even bigger - county voters approve it, the district could provide the bulk of the money needed to pay for running Springfield's new jail.

One day before this week's election, the Springfield council wisely but narrowly voted to amend the Metro Plan to allow formation of the public service district. By doing so, the council kept open the option of working with the county to operate a new Springfield jail and help address both governments' urgent corrections needs.

The task won't be easy. Spring- field officials envision a low-cost, minimally staffed facility that can operate at a fraction of what the county pays to run its jail. The city plans to house less-violent prisoners for shorter periods, whereas the county must deal with harder cases and longer sentences. There's also the question of who would be responsible for managing and staffing the new jail.

None of these obstacles should be insurmountable. Springfield's wholehearted involvement and support, along with that of Eugene and other cities, will be essential if the proposed district is to become reality. If the district fails, then Spring- field officials will have to consider other ways to pay for operating its jail. But for now, the public safety district looks like the city's best bet.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Voters say no to utility tax - but not a new jail
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 19, 2005
Previous Article:No school voters' revolt.
Next Article:We need to keep our numbers to ourselves.

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