County voters will make decision on $15.7 million project in NovemberTo Vicki Ramsdell, the lack of space at the Clatsop County Jail is a very personal issue.
The young woman told the county commissioners Wednesday how the father of her two children was arrested and released repeatedly despite his relentless efforts to get at her.
County voters will decide in November whether to build a new, 140-bed jail facility to make space for Ramsdell's tormentor and other offenders. The board voted unanimously to place a $15.7 million jail bond on the ballot.
"I think it's great that all five commissioners stepped up and supported putting a bond on the ballot," Commission Chairperson Sam Patrick said.
Commissioner Bob Green joined the rest of the board reluctantly, after repeating his concerns that the timing of the bond request is wrong and that too many issues, including the jail's location, price tag and operational costs, remain up in the air.
"I am a thousand percent for a new jail," he said. "But I think the board should sit down and come up with some accurate information and get the people involved in this. I don't want the bond to fail."
The bond, which has been several years in the making, will allow the county to replace its existing 64-bed jail, which officials complain must regularly release inmates before they complete their sentences in order to make room for more offenders. The new facility would also provide new offices for the Clatsop County Sheriff's Office.
Ramsdell said her partner violated a restraining order 14 times before he was deemed to be dangerous enough for a lengthy jail term. On two occasions he was released from jail before she was notified, and in one incident he kidnapped her and her children and rammed his car into a dumptruck in an effort to kill them all, she said.
He is now being held in the Tillamook County Jail, but isn't getting access to any treatment programs, she said.
"I'm safe for the moment, but that's no help to me when he gets out Oct. 4," she said.
Shannon Simons of the Women's Resource Center told the board that accounts like Ramsdell's are all too common. Many clients of the domestic violence prevention organization live in fear because their abusers will be released from jail early due to overcrowding.
"The women ask me, 'How long is he going to be in for this?' And I have to honestly say, 'I don't know,'" she said.
Eva Johnson from Tualatin Valley Centers, the county's drug and alcohol treatment provider, said the early jail releases hurt the organization's efforts to reach inmates through its in-jail treatment programs.
"In jail is the most effective time to reach them," she said. "Unfortunately few are able to be held long enough to benefit."
Jerry Ostermiller said a stint on a local jury opened his eyes to the shortcomings of the jail.
"In following up on the cases, I was appalled to learn that the majority of people convicted of crimes in Clatsop County didn't serve much time," he said.
Former county jail administrator Joe Brunick offered the only testimony against the bond. The county has enough jail beds for its serious criminals, he said - what it needs is more facilities such as a restitution center, where offenders can get access to treatment while also paying back the community through work or monetary payments. But the 30-bed transition center the county plans to build, which will serve low-level offenders and released prisoners, is too small to meet those needs, he said.
In a handout to the commissioners, Brunick repeated his argument that the county hasn't thoroughly explored the possibility of expanding the existing jail - something the county said could be done when the facility was opened in 1979.
"If you don't keep the promises of the past, how will people believe the promises you make in the future?" he said.
Community Corrections Director Danny Jordan, who has initiated a number of programs for offenders, said jail is still an important part of the entire criminal justice system, even with alternatives like house arrest, Drug Court and the transition center. His department has only 20 jail beds available for the more than 600 parole and probation clients it oversees.
"The people we are putting in jail from community corrections - that's where they need to be," he said.
Along with approving the bond request, the board also approved paying $19,750 to Heery International for artist renderings of the proposed facility. The drawings will be based on conceptual plans the company drew up for the project two years ago, with the deletion of the transition center, which is being pursued separately.
But the county needs more than drawings to sell the project to the voters, Green said. Not only are the actual location and total cost not pinned down, but the bond will also be competing with Clatsop Community College's own bond measure, he said.
The county remains locked in a dispute with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over alleged damage to wetlands at the North Coast Business Park, the original proposed site for the new jail. The argument is holding up construction of the planned transition center and blocking any other new development for the time being.
Patrick said county staff members are exploring other sites without the problems of water and sewer service that also hamper the business park location. He said he could not provide any more specific information at this time.
"I believe there will be a location designated before the election," he said. "We will have no problems siting the jail."
The county also has its share of state timber revenue it can tap to cover the added operational costs of the new facility, until another funding source is found, Patrick said.
The new jail is estimated to cost $850,000 more per year to operate than the existing facility. Proposals for new motel or restaurant taxes were dropped in the face of strong opposition.
Commissioner Tim Gannaway, who once visited the jail regularly to minister to inmates, said incarceration offers the best opportunity to reach people in need of drug and alcohol treatment.
He also accused Green of trying to delay the jail bond measure until "his slate of candidates" are in office, an apparent reference to county commission candidates Lylla Gaebel, Janet Miltenberger and Helen Westbrook. Gaebel and Westbrook beat Gannaway and Commissioner Russ Earl in May's primary election, and Miltenberger will face off against Commissioner Richard Lee in November.
Lee said he shared some of Green's concerns, and in particular wanted to see staff investigate how to lower the estimated cost of the project. Another county built a jail of similar size for only $8.5 million, he said.
"I think we can do it cheaper, and I'm not sure we have the ground support, but on the other hand, I am totally aware we need this jail," he said. "I'm not sure we can get it passed, but I will work to get it passed."