County could put jail bond on November ballot

The Clatsop County jail in Astoria is overcrowded.

Clatsop County commissioners will likely decide next month if a $23.8 million proposal to relocate the county jail in Astoria to a larger facility in Warrenton will be referred to voters in November.

The design includes 148 beds with space to expand in the future at the site of the closed North Coast Youth Correctional Facility. The county jail on Duane Street — roughly 40 years old — holds about 60 inmates. The Oregon Youth Authority has offered to hand the Warrenton facility over to the county at no cost.

County Manager Cameron Moore said the county could use cash reserves to pay $2 million to $3 million for the new jail. The county may also request that the state, which operated the youth facility until it closed in October, pay up to $3.2 million for deferred maintenance costs.

The relocation plan will depend on political will, however, and local officials previewed their case at a meeting Wednesday night.

“We’ve got to get it through to voters. That’s really the most important part of this,” said Scott Lee, the board’s chairman. “I think we’ve got a really good plan.”

History is not in their favor. Two previous bond measures to improve the jail — including a $14 million bond in 2012 — have failed.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, will need full support from commissioners in order to help the county acquire the deferred maintenance offset from the state, Sheriff Tom Bergin said.

“She really does not, and I totally and completely understand this, she doesn’t want to spend any political capital unless we have buy-in from commissioners,” Bergin said. “If we get the state buying in, if we get the county buying in, the people are going to look at this and say, ‘Hey, you know what, this is something we’ve needed for a long time.’”

Inmates at the jail are released each week due to overcrowding. Since the county began exploring options for a potential relocation last year, Bergin has repeatedly expressed his desire for a 200-bed facility.

DLR Group, which performed a $51,000 feasibility study, initially presented designs for a $12 million, 140-bed facility as well as a $28 million, 200-bed capacity jail. County staff and the sheriff’s office then asked architects to draw alternative designs that would close the price gap.

A number of rooms in the latest design have not been slated for a specific purpose. The design includes expanded services for educational programs, treatment services and recreation opportunities compared to the Duane Street jail. Bergin acknowledged that some residents have complained about the potential service expansions.

“It’s probably one of our biggest priorities. I come across as kind of a hard guy, a redneck or whatever, but I believe in rehabilitation. Incarceration is important, but rehabilitation is far more important,” the sheriff said. “It’s the whole picture. It’s not, ‘Just make them go out and break rocks anymore’ like it was in the ‘Cool Hand Luke’ days. It’s still some place that I hope that people don’t want to go, but it’s also a place that, once they’re there, I hope they can get some help.”

At the end of the discussion, commissioners and Moore tentatively agreed to include the relocation proposal on the March 14 meeting agenda. Voters would then have the final decision.

“Nobody likes a jail. I don’t want to have a big jail, but it’s something that’s a necessary evil, unfortunately, in our society,” Bergin said. “But I will try my best to get the word out.”

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