Bonds to build the regional jail were paid off last September, and voters will be asked in May to continue paying that same amount, 26 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, to help run the jail.
It would not raise taxes, but would keep the same amount, about $1.3 million a year, coming from the four member counties of the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections facility – Wasco, Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam.
The measure does not need to pass in each individual county, but must gain a simple majority of all votes cast.
The member counties each contribute to an annual “subsidy” to maintain the jail. Now, that subsidy stands at $3.8 million, about half of the total $8 million cost of the jail, said Jail Administrator Bryan Brandenburg. As the largest county, Wasco County is responsible for half the total subsidy.
“For us, it’s definitely our largest expense outside of the county,” said Wasco County Commissioner Scott Hege. “Obviously personnel inside the county is more expensive than this, but for Wasco County [the jail subsidy is] more than $2 million, and it’s up a lot from what it used to be.”
In years past, the regional jail had other funding streams, but when those began to dry up, the jail began to have serious difficulties when it came to keeping the funding going.
If the permanent tax rate passes, it would free up counties to partially reduce their payments to the jail.
Ballots for the May 16 election will go out to voters April 26.
“The whole idea behind the tax measure is to provide at least a moderate amount of support for the operation of the jail,” Hege said. “The money that will be raised by this measure is only a portion of what the counties have to pay, so the counties will still in all likelihood have to pay the operations of the jail but this will at least be a help in part of that.”
No staff increases are planned at the jail if the rate passes. Rather, it would maintain the current staffing level of 61 full-time personnel. The jail is staffed to oversee 130 adult inmates and 15 juveniles.
Officials from the four counties have been mulling this tax rate option for at least a year, Hege said. Then, right in the middle of their discussions, the election of President Donald Trump, who campaigned on strong immigration reform, marked an abrupt increase in the use of contracted jail beds by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The jail has had a contract with ICE almost since the jail opened its doors in 1999. However, the revenues from the ICE contract waxed and waned, and even zeroed out at one point. When a federal immigration detention facility was built in Tacoma, ICE’s use of the regional jail dried up, taking the income with it.
“They left us hanging, in the middle of a fiscal year,” said Molly Rogers, director of youth services for Wasco County. “There are no guarantees for any length of time for federal contracts, and they just left. We scrambled and counties had to make it up. We cut positions, we had layoffs.”
She said, “I know that ICE kind of looks kind of good right now, but there are no guarantees.”
“Even with the fact that ICE is purchasing beds from us at this moment in time doesn’t fully operate the facility,” Rogers said. “And Hood River is in a significant budget deficit and I know they’re struggling with paying the bill. It’s a chunk of change for them.”
She said the jail is what holds the public safety system together. “Just giving it some structural operating support is really necessary to ensure that it stays open.”
As the Tacoma detention facility has filled over recent years, ICE has stepped up its use of the regional jail.
Budget figures show housing of ICE inmates generated revenue of $201,000 in 2014-15, $237,000 in 1015-16, and $579,000 in 2016-17. It is budgeted to be $1 million in the upcoming 2017-18 budget, which begins July 1.
The counties were looking at increasing their payments to the jail in the upcoming budget, but the anticipated ICE revenue enabled the county payments to stay about the same as current levels, Hege said.
The jail budget anticipates holding 40 ICE inmates. All ICE inmates have some previous criminal history, and are not just being held solely because of their immigration status, Hege said.
“The revenue from ICE is not dependable and has shown to be very unstable over the years,” Hege said. “And the lack of ICE funding over the last several years has led to a lot of the financial instability with the operations at NORCOR. So I think to depend on that for the future would be probably not a great decision.”
The tax rate would provide a “small amount of sustainable funds that I believe will help the jail.”
“That’s the concern over relying on these ICE funds. We have no idea if they’re going to be sustainable or consistent or anything, frankly,” Hege said.
Brandenburg said the permanent tax base was a way “to continue to support public safety.”
Counties are not in danger currently of not being able to make their payments, “but it’s certainly something that needs to be looked at in the future,” Brandenburg said.
Brandenburg said the costs at the jail keep going up, such as personnel costs, including benefits, and the counties themselves also have significant mounting costs, particularly with expected ongoing significantly increased payments for pensions.
Hege said of the ICE payments, “It’s kind of a difficult thing to say no to and that’s what’s helping now in offsetting these expenses.”
Wasco County Commissioner Rod Runyon said the 26-cent limit could never be increased. “By having this [permanent tax rate] in place, which is not anywhere near the total operating money needed to operate the jail for the four counties, but it would give us an operational base to work from. It would still require the counties to come up with additional funds, substantial additional funds, I would say.”
Runyon said, “We’re just looking for ways to solidify the facility on behalf of public safety. It’s a big issue.”
Hege said the counties have had a “pretty vigorous” discussion over the last few months about the juvenile side of the jail, with some counties saying it’s too expensive to keep it open.
The counties did agree to keep it open, but having the permanent tax rate approved “would help to keep that part of the jail to continue to operate.”