Hood River County officials are worried that if a regional jail bond levy fails, the county will be in even poorer shape to fill a $1.6 million budget hole next year.
The construction bonds that created Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility about 20 years ago were paid off last September.
Now, jail officials are asking taxpayers from the four counties the facility in The Dalles serves — Hood River, Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam — to keep paying the same rate, in part to handle rising operational costs.
Voters will decide on the NORCOR bond levy’s fate this month. The bond proposal on the May 16 Special District election ballot would not raise taxes, but would establish a permanent tax rate carrying over the existing 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. It totals $1.3 million.
A simple majority of votes, aggregate, from the four counties would be needed for the measure to pass.
County Chair Ron Rivers said the bond would provide some stability for the jail as well as relief to the four counties that pay annual subsidies to NORCOR, particularly Hood River, which faces a projected shortfall of well over a million dollars in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
“It will allow us a little breathing room … for a few years until we can find other revenue sources to keep operating this county,” County Chair Ron Rivers said.
The four counties currently divvy up subsidy payments to the jail roughly as follows: Wasco: $1.9 million (50 percent), Hood River: $1.5 million (40 percent), Sherman and Gilliam: $191,700 (5 percent each).
Running the jail has grown more expensive in recent years, Rivers said. Compared to $5.8 million in operational costs in 2015, the jail faces $6.2 million in 2017.
NORCOR books about 3,000 inmates per year, with roughly the same released each year. The average daily population is 120 adults and 19 juveniles, and the cost to house adults is $123 per day.
Jail revenue comes not only from partner county subsidies but also contracts with law enforcement agencies, counties outside the Gorge, and rental income from property the NORCOR partnership owns.
Fiscal uncertainty comes when the contracts fluctuate from year to year, Sheriff Matt English said.
For instance, revenue for the jail “plummeted” when Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) started using a federal immigration detention facility in Tacoma, Wash., dialing back its contracted beds at NORCOR. (The jail has had a contract with ICE since it opened in 1999.)
The jail has faced criticism and protests this year over its contract with ICE following the election of President Donald Trump, who has called for more stringent border security and immigration reform.
This week, an advocacy group called the Gorge ICE Resistance Coalition picketed the jail, supporting immigration detainees who were on a hunger strike to protest what they said were poor living conditions.
“Those protests have been over ICE,” English said. “I understand it, but the flipside of that coin is that if we pass this (bond), then it lessens NORCOR’s dependence on these contracts (such as ICE).”
County Administrator Jeff Hecksel described the bond as a leveling influence.
“It makes each of the separate entities less susceptible to the ups and downs of the third-party contracts,” he said.
But even the bond won’t solve all the county’s financial woes. “This will not even come close to filling that hole,” Hecksel said.
Rivers said, “This isn’t an ask that we want to do, but it’s an ask that’s a necessity for county services.
“I can guarantee you in the next budget cycle that there will be cuts to be made to county services and people are not going to like it. It will be across the board.”
County budget struggle
Rivers said the county balanced its budget this funding cycle, 2016-2017, by tapping into a $1 million reserve fund; however, the 2018-2019 budget solution won’t be so simple.
Hecksel said revenue shortages — such as dwindling federal timber payments — have led to the deficit, despite the county’s policies managing expenses and reducing certain programs over the years.
“Expenses are outdoing our revenue,” Rivers said, and next year’s budget is appearing to be a “2008 scenario” similar to the Recession.
Public safety has been hit hard by staffing shortages, according to English. He said his department’s staffing hasn’t kept up with Hood River’s growth or increasing search and rescue calls.
“Our staffing is just above marginally where we were 27 years ago and this county has grown by 40 percent since then,” English said. “We’ve got to add positions, but the county is in no position right now to add anything … it’s barely treading water.”
The sheriff’s office no longer has complete 24-hour service, the first time in recent memory, according to Rivers.
Hecksel said the county hasn’t settled on a particular source of new revenue. That will be the focus of discussions at the board level leading up to next year’s budget decision.