After years of wrangling, a solution to the annual NORCOR budget crisis may be within reach.
The four counties involved with the Northern Oregon Correctional Facility – Hood River, Wasco, Gilliam and Sherman – reached a tentative agreement on a more equitable funding model for the prison following a multi-hour mediation session Thursday.
The counties engaged in a pair of mediation sessions with Hood River Circuit Court Judge Paul Crowley following a contentious meeting in June. In that previous meeting Wasco County representatives motioned to remove Hood River County from participating in the facility after Hood River had refused to commit to paying money owed on facility operations.
The tentative agreement calls for a five-year rolling average of each county’s bed use in the jail to apply to 90 percent of the jail’s $4.2 million budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, with the remaining percentage being paid out of the usage averages of Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam counties.
Wasco County would be exempted from the remaining percentage as a “nuisance provision” for hosting the jail.
For each remaining year of the plan, the five-year rolling average would fund 92.5 percent of the budget, with Wasco County receiving a break on the final 7.5 percent.
The proposal was agreed upon by the mediation group and now must pass muster at each of the four county commissions before being voted on by the NORCOR board to take affect next July.
“It was important to reach a resolution and everyone left there on speaking terms,” said David Meriwether, Hood River County Administrator.
The mediation sessions included NORCOR board members, county commissioners, judges, Joe Wampler, Rick Eiseland, Gary Bettencourt and Brad Lohrey –the Sheriffs of Hood River, Wasco, Gilliam and Sherman Counties, respectively.
Crowley raised the possibility for such a proposal about an hour and a half into Thursday’s session, after all parties involved appeared again be circling the wagons towards another funding stalemate.
Crowley’s model built on ideas proposed by Meriwether and Gilliam County Judge Pat Shaw earlier in the session.
Meriwether, along with Hood River County Commission Chair Ron Rivers, proposed a model similar to one which has been used to fund the jail for years, with Wasco paying 50 percent, Hood River 40 and Sherman and Gilliam five percent each.
Meriwether proposed changing the structure to 50 percent by Wasco, 25 by Hood River and five percent each from Wasco and Gilliam, with the remainder coming through a usage average or different formula.
That proposal met a storm of protest from representatives from the other three counties, who all contended that Hood River would wind up paying for fewer beds than it uses currently.
Paying for beds has been a sore spot among the counties for years, with Wasco County currently using around two-thirds of the available beds.
The jail is being funded this year on a temporary model, with the 50-40-5-5 payments still in place, but any county that goes over their allotment re-distributes that money to the other counties.
That has led to fears of a “race to the bottom” in which each county would ensure it stays at its bed limit to avoid paying over by not booking criminals into the jail.
It was still a fear which bubbled up repeatedly during Thursday’s meeting, with some expressing worries over why Hood River County had been using less beds than it originally signed up for when the jail was built.
“It doesn’t seem fair if you are using the facility less and getting charged more, so I can see Hood River’s side, but what is the reason it’s not being used?” asked Wasco County Commissioner Sherri Holliday.
Over the past 10 years, the population of Hood River has risen at a faster rate than the other counties, but its use of NORCOR beds is down.
“Our numbers are down because crime is down. We are not racing to the bottom,” Rivers said.
Hood River has also taken a different enforcement tack, choosing to cite for misdemeanors in some cases instead of booking offenders into NORCOR for felonies.
Hood River also does not enforce as many major drug crimes as Wasco, in part because they do not participate in the MINT narcotics task force.
“Part of it is socioeconomic ... I think you have greater homeless population in Wasco than you do in Hood River,” Crowley said.
“I think Joe (Wampler) brings his to Wasco,” said Wasco County Sheriff Rick Eiseland, bringing one of the few laugh lines of the meeting.
Crowley’s proposal flipped the Hood River County vs. Wasco County dynamic of the past several years around, and it was Sherman and Gilliam’s turn to raise concerns.
Under Crowley’s original rolling average plan paying 90 percent of the budget and Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam picking up the tab on the rest, Wasco would pay around $200,000 more a year than they do currently, Hood River around $200,000 less and Sherman and Gilliam around $25,000 more each.
The Gilliam and Sherman county sheriffs questioned how much of a break on cost for hosting the jail Wasco should get since the prison does provide jobs to the county as well and proposed a break of as low as five percent.
Following a lunch break, the group was able to hammer out a proposal to split the difference on the proposed inconvenience offset.
Meriwether credited Crowley for bringing the parties together and for helping them to reach a resolution on a process which had grown extremely acrimonious.
“Judge Crowley was absolutely outstanding,” he said. “All four counties should be extremely appreciative of his efforts.”
Meriwether said he and Rivers would be recommending the plan for approval to the County Commission, which will likely take up a vote on the matter in September.