Hood River County, which is in the midst of its own budget crisis, has proposed increasing the subsidy it pays to fund the regional jail, even though it would mean staff reductions at the county.
Hood River County Commissioner Bob Benton also chairs the regional jail board, and told the jail board May 7 that the county board saw the importance of the regional jail as a part of county services, and agreed that the jail’s proposed budget increase is reasonable.
While jail officials have asked for a roughly 18.4 percent increase in subsidies from the four counties that make up the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility (NORCOR), Hood River County proposed increasing its subsidy by 10 percent, or about $150,000.
Still unknown is whether Wasco County, which has the largest subsidy at about $1.9 million a year, will follow suit with Hood River County or propose something different.
Wasco County Commissioner Kathy Schwartz, who represents her county at the jail board, said she would take the new information back to her board, which has a budget meeting this coming week.
The four counties have long agreed to split the county subsidy at 50 percent from Wasco County, 40 percent from Hood River County, and 5 percent each from Sherman and Gilliam counties.
If that formula is to hold, then each county would have to increase its subsidy by the same percentage amount Benton said the jail is unique in that, based on the way it is structured, it can’t make small cuts. Rather, it would have to make significant changes, such as closing its juvenile detention facility—an option that has been floated and rejected repeatedly over the years—or significantly scaling back the amount of adult jail beds it can fill.
County subsidies haven’t increased in four years, even though costs at the jail have risen, but Benton said that was because other revenue sources were generated in the meantime.
The subsidies cover about half the cost of running the jail.
But now, costs are up enough that those sources—including a contract to house Benton County inmates—don’t cut it.
The jail is facing a 67 percent increase in its food budget, a 25 percent hike in insurance costs, and increased retirement costs. Requests were also made for a 1 percent cost-of-living pay hike and adding staff. Proposed staff additions in the adult jail include a corrections technician, a mental health clinician, and more nursing hours.
The counties currently pay $3.8 million altogether in subsidies. The proposed jail budget asks for $4.5 million.
Meanwhile, Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill, who represents sheriffs on the jail board, said having 100 jail beds available for the four counties was, in the opinion of the sheriffs, probably not going to be adequate.
A better goal was to have 120-125 beds available to the counties, he said.
In the current fiscal year, which began July 1, the jail has had 49 forced releases, Magill said, and the sheriffs want to get away from that.
A forced release occurs when the amount of inmates exceeds the staffing capacity to safely oversee them, according to Magill. When an inmate has to be released, the sheriffs follow a matrix system that tells them which inmates are the lowest risk to re-offend.
Sherman County Commissioner Tom McCoy, who represents his county on the jail board, said the jail used to have about 125 beds available for the local counties.
“We reduced our local population to make room for the paying customers,” McCoy said, referring to contracts for jail beds that the county has with several entities.
Schwartz said she talked to State Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, who was interested in seeking funding for the jail from the Oregon legislature. She said it was a “long shot,” but worth a try.
Magill said he was skeptical of taking state money, since it can come with strings attached.
Magill also said the jail had its annual inspection by the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association, and met 311 of 316 standards, “which is amazing.”
The visiting sheriffs who toured and assessed the jail said it was “one of the cleanest and one of the quietest jail facilities in the state,” Magill said. “They actually said the food was great.”
He said the jail is seen as a model for other jails to follow, especially since it has in-house medical providers, as opposed to contract providers.
Teresa Hepker, with the NORCOR Community Resources Coalition, recommended the jail board consider another leadership model. When Jail Administrator Bryan Brandenburg resigned last year, an oversight sheriff and oversight juvenile director were named to oversee the adult and juvenile sides of the jail, respectively.
She said that since nobody could predict how long the jail could be managed under that “team model,” she suggested researching whether a business manager, rather than a dedicated administrator, could be viable.
“Much of running an institution involved decisions based on financial considerations, which require a different skill set than is needed for day to day operations on the ground,” she said in a prepared statement.
She also addressed “the elephant in the room—that is, the ICE contract.” She said her group’s main goal was eliminating the jail’s dependence on the income from that contract, “and to remove our local jail from the network of mass imprisonment of immigrants, which we regard as economically unsustainable and a violation of human rights.”
A recent ruling in a lawsuit about the ICE contract found the jail was not violating the state’s sanctuary law by housing immigration detainees. The ruling did hold that the jail could not notify ICE when foreign-born inmates were about to be released. The jail said it was no longer doing that anyway.