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Light-rail ruling new wrinkle in jail-space talks

By Barney Lerten
Published On: Sep 08 2012 03:25:19 PM CDT
Deschutes County Jail

Deschutes County Jail

BEND, Ore. -

There are two basic ways for a local government to view voter rejection of a money request – they don’t want the proposal, or they don’t want to pay more taxes for it. The latter view holds more water when other gauges of public sentiment, such as surveys, put the need for (public safety, for example, or transit) high on the list.

That’s why the city of Bend, after voters said no to transit funding (despite public survey priorities for such service), created a transit system at reduced cost (but broken-bus headaches) several years ago, one that has now evolved into a regional transit system (that’s facing its own budget woes and is looking to cut services).

It’s also the setting in which elected officials such as Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton and county commissioners have been working as they consider how to add more jail beds, with the 20-year-old, 228-bed jail now running at what Blanton has called “110 percent” capacity amid a growing inmate population.

Two years ago, county voters rejected a $44 million money measure to double the size of the jail. The sheriff recently began renting jail beds in Jefferson County, to avoid having to release inmates early under the so-called “matrix” formula – the first time Deschutes County has used beds in a neighboring county.

In recent weeks, Blanton also has proposed adding 144 beds to the jail, using existing bonding capacity in both the sheriff’s office and county budgets.

This week, after getting two estimates, he put a price tag on it: $10 million (also including an upgrade to the jail’s medical facilities).

But while two commissioners, Alan Unger and Tony DeBone, appeared ready to go along this week, colleague Tammy Baney suggested first reviewing the possibility of using the under-utilized space in the nearby juvenile detention facility to hold adult inmates instead.

Unger said Friday the juvenile facility only serves five Deschutes County juveniles (though could up to 10) in a space built for 60 to 70 young offenders. He said the question became, “Should we be spending money adding to the jail, or move the kids to a right-sized facility more effective to operate?”

County commissioners were told Friday that the juvenile facility could move to a vacant county building on Harriman Street, after about $200,000 in renovations, though it could only hold eight juvenile beds (the county’s total juvenile inmate count averages in the low teens, according to The Bulletin.)

The good news: They were told the now-juvenile detention facility then could house up to 88 adult jail inmates, at no added cost.

And that option likely got some added weight Friday due to what Unger called “a new thing that popped up” – and as it turns out, that “new thing” is a new legal sticking point tied to always-controversial public transit – not in Central Oregon, but in the Portland area, where light rail expansion sparks big controversy.

Late Thursday, the Oregon Supreme Court granted foes of a Portland-to-Milwaukie light rail extension a temporary restraining order prohibiting Clackamas County from selling bonds for its payment toward the project. The county had canceled the $19.2 million bond sale the day before.

County leaders were ready to sell bonds to support the MAX light-rail line extension, even though an anti-light rail initiative is on a Sept. 18 special-election ballot.

The measure, if approved, would require countywide voter approval before officials can spend money to finance, design, construct or operate any rail lines in the county.

Proponents also say the measure would require voter approval before the county pays TriMet for the under-construction Portland-Milwaukie light rail extension.

According to The Oregonian, county commissioners and TriMet officials had argued that the initiative would apply only to future projects, not the county's original, legally binding $25 million contract for Portland-Milwaukie light rail. The county had already begun to explore legal options it could pursue if the measure passes.

Whatever the final outcome of that legal fight, back in Bend, Unger said after a Friday meeting of the sheriff and commissioners that “every municipality that uses its full faith and credit to pay for bonds” is giving them a strong second look, in light of the court ruling, as county legal counsel Mark Pilliod brought the matter to their attention, and the new legal risks it presents.

It appears a final decision will come at another meeting of Blanton and the commissioners, set for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. Blanton, who has said his agency badly needs more jail beds no later than 2014, told NewsChannel 21 he wants to do what’s most fiscally responsible for the county taxpayers – and that if the use of the juvenile facility pencils out (and works logistically), he’ll support it.

“Whatever commissioners decide, we’ll make work,” Blanton said at Friday’s meeting,

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