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Taxing Public Safety

Will the Lane County jail tax levy stop crime?

If you’ve read the newspapers or watched the news lately, then you know that the Lane County Jail has been setting criminals and accused criminals free early for months now due to lack of funds. However, for opponents of Measure 20-213 on the May 21 ballot, the fact that the tax funds only jail beds — not increased patrols in rural areas, victims’ services or other aspects of public safety and rehabilitating criminals — means it’s not worth the $85 a year the average homeowner in Lane County will pay because it doesn’t solve the problem of public safety.

 The tax would be 55 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on a home for five years, possibly raising property taxes more than 3 percent, the proposed levy language on the ballot says. Without the tax, Lane County Sheriff Tom Turner says there aren’t nearly enough jail beds to hold criminals and those accused of crimes — a county this size should have 1,000 jail beds, he says, based on national averages. The tax would bring the number of adult jail beds up to 255 and double juvenile beds to 32. Those who oppose the tax say the jail lacks funding, and Turner has been put into an untenable position when it comes to policing, because Lane County itself isn’t managing its money very well and needs a better long-term plan.

Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson is the lone progressive on the County Commission; he was also the lone “no” vote on the decision to place the tax levy on the ballot. Sorenson said that he was concerned that none of the tax money would go to provide treatment of mental health problems, treatment of alcoholism or other social services aimed at reducing crime, jail populations and the recidivism rate — the number of previously incarcerated people going back to jail. Sgt. Carrie Carver, public information officer for the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, says that the recidivism rate with the current low number of jail beds has not been calculated due to both the sheer amount of information coming in and to the lack of funds to do the calculations.

 Usually liberals are accused of wanting to tax and conservatives are tagged as anti-government, but libertarian Commissioner Jay Bozievich and Republican Commissioners Sid Leiken, Faye Stewart and Pat Farr all voted for the tax. However, County Commission aside, Sorenson is not alone in his reservations about the tax levy. 

Jim Steiner, the AFSCME union staff representative, points out that recent revelations about County Administrator Liane Richardson’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering for a $20,000 raise on her $152,345 salary — telling the county’s human resources director she would leave the county for another job — “did not help gain the trust of the public” at a time when the county is hurting for funds.

County documents show a board order to implement the raises was drawn up for the Jan. 21 commission meeting, the same day as a public safety funding hearing. After the proposed raise was made public when it came up for a vote by the County Commission, Richardson and County Counsel Stephen Dingle, also up for a $20,000 increase, said they would not take the raises. 

Steiner says, “The timing of the proposed increases certainly raised a fiscal red flag given the leadership’s claim for needed additional revenues.”  

Steiner says AFSCME Local 2831 didn’t take a stand on 20-213, despite having been supportive of public safety measures in the past. “The sheriff never asked for any help, endorsements or anything else this time,” Steiner says, adding, “That could be because Turner contracted out AFSCME members’ jobs who provided medical services at the jail.” 

More than 40 union workers lost their jobs. According to Steiner, the union told the sheriff that historical information shows that contracting out jobs actually costs much more money, sometimes as early as the second and third year. In a recent EW interview, Turner said that the contracting out did save money but not the millions he was hoping it would. 

The pro-20-213 contingent has been vocal, with lawn signs, a website and the April 19 campaign kick-off — featuring Turner and Paul Solomon among others — raised some eyebrows when 16 inmates were released in front of the audience and the media. Levy proponents have a Sisyphean task: Lane County voters have not passed a public safety ballot measure since 1998. The measures have been defeated nine times, organized opposition or not.

Solomon, executive director of Sponsors, which provides re-entry services for those who have been incarcerated, says that while he believes prisons in this country are overused, the levy is needed because the Lane County Jail doesn’t have enough beds to hold people long enough to interrupt the cycles of drug dependency or other problems and get offenders the help they need. 

The tax levy would end after five years. But Lane County’s budget woes have been going on for a long time, and Sorenson says that the county needs to develop a long-term, stable plan for funding not just jail beds but public safety as a whole — treatment, prevention and intervention. He points to Deschutes County, which in 2006 formed a taxing district to permanently fund its Sheriff’s Office. According to the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office website, “the Sheriff’s Office will never again have to ask Deschutes County voters to approve temporary operating levies.” 

Sorenson says that he asked his fellow commissioners to put a work session on their agenda to discuss forming a district like Deschutes did, to give public safety in Lane County permanent funding, but the commission majority chose to look at this temporary, jail-bed-only levy instead.