Voters on Tuesday approved a $20 million bond to relocate the overcrowded Clatsop County Jail in Astoria to an expanded facility in Warrenton.
Two previous bond measures, in 2002 and 2012, had failed, but law enforcement saw a rare opportunity to upgrade when the state closed the North Coast Youth Correctional Facility last year.
“Oh, hell yes,” Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin said when asked if he had seen the election results moments after they were released. The bond passed with 55.4 percent of the vote.
“I’m very grateful to the people of Clatsop County for realizing this is an absolute necessity for the integrity of the county,” he said.
DLR Group, a Portland-based architecture firm, was hired to conduct a $51,000 feasibility study on converting the former youth facility. The firm presented plans that ranged from a $12 million option with capacity for 140 inmates to $28 million with 200 inmates.
Citing relatively inexpensive operating costs, the county commission settled on a design that calls for 148 beds with room for future expansion.
The 38-year-old jail on Duane Street can hold 60 inmates. Several inmates each week are released from the jail while their court cases are ongoing because of overcrowding.
Local law enforcement leaders cited several studies that reveal the need for a new jail. The 2017 Oregon Uniform Crime Report, for example, ranked the county first in behavioral crimes and crimes against people and fifth in property crimes.
Some, though, questioned how the jail bond would fare, considering that school bonds in Astoria and Warrenton and another measure to expand the Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District’s fitness and aquatic centers were also on the ballot.
“I was cautiously optimistic, to put it lightly,” Bergin said.
Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer and the City Commission took no position on the jail bond. The mayor said that while he saw the need for a new jail, he was hesitant to ask residents for more money with the Warrenton-Hammond School District’s $38.5 million bond also on the ballot.
“This bond takes unique advantage of the still ‘fresh’ bones of the (Oregon Youth Authority) facility, without which the project could have cost the taxpayers double,” District Attorney Josh Marquis said in an email. “Yet some, like Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer, refused to take a position, like many I guess, hoping that we could just whistle through stats showing the highest violent crime rates reported by the Oregon Criminal Justice System.”
Bergin said the difference in this year’s bond measure was that officials had a more established plan that was meant to keep costs down.
“I know we did our due diligence the past two years,” he said.
Bergin has said a new jail would offer better mental health treatment options. While Amy Baker, the executive director of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, decried the tendency to fund incarceration over mental health services, she supported the bond. Baker said the current jail is “inhumane” and that a new one could offer more opportunities to provide treatment.
To pay for increased jail operating costs, the county passed a 1 percent lodging tax. Bergin said the tax was fair since a large share of people arrested in the county come from other areas. Local hoteliers, however, vehemently opposed the tax.
Bergin said the next step is for architects and county officials to discuss a timeline for construction in Warrenton.
“I’m sure it’ll take a few months to get that all sorted out and move forward,” he said.
• View election results: View the latest results here.