Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot shares her views during Wednesday night’s Justice System Improvement Program open house. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

CORVALLIS — It’s been more than seven years since voters shot down a bond measure and Benton County’s proposal to build a new jail in the Philomath vicinity. Coming up in May, an expanded, comprehensive approach to public safety along with a new location on the edge of Corvallis will again go on the ballot.

On Wednesday evening in the Kalapuya Building, the new home of the Benton County Board of Commissioners and various county services, more than 200 people showed up for an open house to learn more about the project. County staff and elected officials were on hand to share their perspectives on why voters should check “yes” on their ballots in favor of a $110 million bond measure.

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“I would say there were two reasons that they got voted down the last time,” Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot said. “One was that we really focused only on the incarceration piece and not on treatment and not on all of the behavioral aspects of what leads someone to end up in the justice system in the first place. The other is the fact that the location was poorly chosen and poorly socialized with the community. As you know, it was in Philomath and was very unpopular when the bond measure was announced.”

The county’s proposal in 2015 was to build a law enforcement center on 15.3 acres of former mill property on the east side of 19th Street — land that will in the near future become an RV park.

The 2015 measure asked for up to $25 million in bonds to build a 112-bed jail. The vote failed by a 52-48 margin countywide with the most opposition predictably seen in Philomath-area precincts.

Out of the failed vote, the county regrouped and focused on scope and location as top priorities.

“This time around, we have engaged the community over a period of the last five years and we’re really trying to make sure that people are not surprised and they know what the vision is, what we’re looking for,” Augerot said. “And it’s not near any housing to speak of, so that helps, too. The location is a better choice.”

The proposed location is on Highway 20 southwest of the HP campus and involves property that the county had to go to court over with the landowner.

Rick Crager, chief financial officer for the county, illustrates details of the bond measure. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Benton County’s Justice System Improvement Program open house provided information and concept plans for the new crisis center, courthouse and district attorney’s office along with the proposed new correctional facility with sheriff’s office and emergency operations center, and expanded homeless and mental health services. 

County Commissioner Pat Malone believes in the expanded package of services.

“It’s not just a jail — and we have a jail, but we need a correctional facility and that’s not just semantics,” he said. “Right now, we really don’t have the space to do much in the way of programs and the community is less safe because of that.”

Despite the need, money is still money and some folks are going through difficult times with a challenged economy the past couple of years. As a result, the $110 million amount on the bond measure might sound scary to some.

Benton County Commissioner Pat Malone listens to an open house visitor. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“I think this is a reasonable proposal and partly because it is comprehensive,” Malone said. “With all of the components that we have, I think it gets people’s attention … not thrilled about the dollar amount but it’s time.”

The cost to taxpayers would be estimated at $142 per year for a Benton County home with an average tax-assessed value of $258,596. That’s based on an estimated bond levy rate of 55 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

“We have serious needs and we’ve kicked the can down the road,” Malone said. “The corrections facility should have been done a decade or two ago and we’ve got a good plan. We’ve been working seriously on this proposal for five years, so it’s not something that we threw together.”

Sheriff Jef Van Arsdall said the No. 1 message that he wanted to get across to people on Wednesday night came down to community support.

“I think that we enjoy a great deal of support in the sheriff’s office — the courts and the district attorney’s office, I just think of as a holistic part of the system,” Van Arsdall said. “We just need to move forward and create better facilities for the folks that live in our community.”

Van Arsdall said the justice system improvements would benefit everybody.

“Whether it’s accountability and consequences, access to treatment, access to resources that are going to help folks get better and improve themselves, we just have an obligation, I think, to do that for everybody,” he said.

Benton County Sheriff Jef Van Arsdall talks to an open house attendee about challenges of the law enforcement agency’s current conditions. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Van Arsdall said he approaches interactions with Benton County residents as an opportunity to learn more about what the public’s thinking.

“When we have these events … I take notes and always get little nuggets from all of these presentations because we always have to try and get better,” he said. “If I just keep doing things the same way, then I’m not any different than anybody else. I’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right thing for everybody in the Benton County community.”

As for the iconic 1888 courthouse in downtown courthouse, no definitive decisions have been made about what will be done with it if the bond measure passes and those services are relocated.

“There’s a group meeting to try to figure out what to do with it,” Malone said. “The Board of Commissioners is supposed to get a proposal and a couple of options sometime next month.”

There would be time to figure it all out, Malone added, with the new courthouse not ready at least until toward the end of 2025.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.