Dire straits puts Columbia Co Jail in peril

Jail inmates (KOIN 6 News, file)
Jail inmates (KOIN 6 News, file photo)

ST. HELENS, Ore. (KOIN) — Dwindling federal timber payments have caused a public safety crisis in at least seven Oregon counties, and some county officials are considering closing jails.

Dozens of county leaders met to consider options like consolidating public safety programs or passing a gas tax.

In Columbia County, leaders are considering every option to keep their county jail from shutting down — including asking Gov. John Kitzhaber to step in.

Columbia County authorities told KOIN 6 News the situation at the jail is the worst it could be. If a financial solution is not reached soon, they said murderers, attempted murderers, sex offenders and assault suspects could go free in three months.

Jail employees are hoping a levy on the May ballot will pass.

Currently, the jail holds about 110 inmates — women and men facing low level drug charges to high level murder and attempted murder.

The jail can only afford the fund 110 beds, Lt. Tony Weaver with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office told KOIN 6 News. Of those, 25 are for local inmates. The remaining 85 are federally-rented space.

“We’re at our 25 bed capacity now,” Weaver said. “We matrix release people everyday.”

He said if county voters don’t pass the levy this time, the jail will be forced to transfer its 10 worst offenders to another county.

“There will be several violent offenders who will be released back into our county if the levy doesn’t pass,” he said.

A similar levy failed in the past.

St. Helens resident Diane Carver is aware of the issue but hasn’t decided how she feels about it.

“I’m still on the fence. I’m waiting to see,” she said. “On the one had, we need a jail. But on the other hand, the taxes are killing here.”

County leader also said they could ask Gov. Kitzhaber to declare a public safety emergency, which would mean local incomes would be taxed — but that is a last-resort option.

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