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The Jail Tax: A Flawed Process Produced an Incomplete Proposal | Darby Ayers-Flood

Published By Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood in Medford Mail Tribune, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019

"After Talent became the first city to vote against Jackson County’s current proposal for a new tax to drastically increase jail capacity, I’d like to express some frustrations with the process that have not been fully recognized in media coverage so far.

The county talks as though their current proposal is the only possible proposal. Several members of our city council who voted against the current proposal spoke eloquently calling for a better one, not for none at all.

Virtually everyone agrees that the jail is overcrowded. The county’s proposal only addresses one reaction – building a much bigger new jail. Many of us are asking for a more complete proposal that also addresses ways to reduce the number of people who have to be taken to jail.

To make a simple analogy, if your roof is leaking and therefore your ceiling is damaged, it is not enough to keep spending money to patch the ceiling. First you need to fix the roof so you are not throwing good money after bad.

Because the county hasn’t presented alternatives, it’s been left to residents and community groups to point out examples of approaches that are having an impact in other counties, like a 24/7 psychiatric crisis center, and teams of deputies and health professionals responding to certain calls that shouldn’t lead to arrest.

The county proposed creating a “service district” that could only spend money on the jail and not on the other pieces of the puzzle – prevention, diversion, crisis response, and treatment. Yet, County Administrator Danny Jordan told our council that the county could have chosen a normal tax increase to the general fund. Such a general fund increase could be used for both the jail and other, pre-jail and post-jail approaches.

Jordan also agreed that the county could have proposed a structure that would be governed by a nonpartisan, independent, elected board, but instead chose to create this second taxing district run by the three county commissioners. The county’s portion of property taxes would be raised by more than 40%.

It’s frustrating that the county did not present to cities how a new tax of this size could impact other county and city services, as well as future needs for transportation, fire protection, or water and sewer maintenance and improvements.

Measure 50 passed by Oregon voters limits the total property tax rate any resident can be asked to pay. So when the county enacts a big rate increase that jeopardizes potential funding for other needs. That could be especially dangerous when the next recession comes and the property values the rates are applied to begin to fall. This is particularly concerning given that residents just approved an additional tax increase for emergency services. It’s frustrating that when residents ask for alternatives to divert people directly to services instead of jail, the county changes the subject by talking about services inside the jail, which is a separate issue.

It’s frustrating that on the one hand, some supporters say a bigger jail will connect more people to services and then those same supporters express doubt in its ability to work. It’s frustrating that county officials sometimes say programs in other counties are worth looking at and then turn around and discount them working in Jackson County, as they push for the current proposal.

It’s frustrating that last spring the county set up an advisory committee after two cities chose not to endorse the county proposal – and then treated the committee as merely a place to repeat all the arguments for the county’s proposal. Powerless advisory committees are no substitute for real problem solving leading to concrete commitments.

It’s frustrating that some county supporters caricature residents who raise questions as people who don’t believe we need a jail, or who think every problem can be solved by treatment, or that no crime should have consequences. That caricature is untrue, and they know it. It’s frustrating that the county does not acknowledge the harm jail does in terms of additional trauma and making it harder for people to secure employment, qualify for housing or benefits.

It’s frustrating that people who ask about alternatives are demonized and subjected to personal attacks. The new jail would cost $1 billion over 23 years, according to the county’s own figures. Shouldn’t we take the time to get this right?

It’s frustrating that asking for a better proposal from the county commissioners is falsely characterized as criticism of Sheriff Sickler. I voted for him. I would do it again. I appreciate his department’s participation in anti-bias training. This is not about him. And I agree with Sheriff Sickler that some elements of the package we need from the commissioners to keep people out of jail and improve outcomes after jail are not under his direct budgetary control. That doesn’t mean that the commissioners shouldn’t include those other elements in a comprehensive plan.

The county has said that improving other services would depend not only on the county but also on what Coordinated Care Organizations (CCOs) set up by the state are willing to do. Shouldn't that be figured out between the county and CCOs before city councils are asked to vote, not after?

It’s frustrating that the county provides so little hard data to back up its proposal. A recent guest opinion supporting the plan claimed that, “right now, the only people being housed [in the jail] are felons.” I don’t know what that statement is based on. I have spoken with families of mentally ill people who have been jailed and charged with misdemeanors when they could have been taken instead to a 24/7 psychiatric crisis center – if Jackson County had one.

Finally, it’s frustrating to be told that because the county has put off innovative approaches to deal with overcrowding for so long, we now have to rush to adopt their only proposal or any estimated increases will be added to the people’s tax burden.

Jackson County should go back to the drawing board, work with everyone in the community, and come up with a complete package that will achieve the results that all of us would like to see.

Darby Ayers-Flood is mayor of Talent. The views expressed here are her own.

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