The long battle to find a way to build a new, larger jail in Benton County is back in the hands of voters.
Although the bond measure featured on the May 16 special election ballot covers a lot more than a new jail, it’s the fourth attempt for correctional facilities-related funding since 2000. The most recent failure occurred in 2015 when the proposed site for a law enforcement center was proposed on 15.3 acres of former mill property in Philomath.
“I would say, just based on general conversation, I think it’s going to pass but I don’t think it’ll be by a large margin,” Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot said following a recent appearance at a local chamber event. “The last time it failed in Philomath and north Albany and it passed in Corvallis. So I’m hoping that we can once again pass in Corvallis and then north Albany and Philomath will vote yes this time.’
Promoted as the Justice System Improvement Program and titled Measure 2-140 on the ballot, the initiative as a whole relates to Benton County’s needs and desires in the areas of public safety, accountability and treatment. A new justice campus on 29 acres in north Corvallis that includes expanded jail capacity, behavioral health services and homelessness solutions are all part of the package.
“I think the thing that killed it (in 2015) was there wasn’t that much community conversation,” Augerot said. “People had no idea what we were trying to do in terms of the program side. All they saw, all they heard about was a building and people want more information about what we’re doing.”
As a result, there have been a lot of appearances through the political action committee that was formed to support the bond. Commissioners, Sheriff Jef Van Arsdall and others have participated in dozens of appearances before a variety of organizations and entities throughout the county, including a well-attended open house in February.
On April 20, Augerot and Van Arsdall were on hand to provide an overview of the bond measure and answered questions during a Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon. During an appearance that lasted under an hour, they responded to 17 questions.
“I think that most of what we deal with is distrust of government because there’s so much of that going on right now,” Augerot said when asked about a common theme that she hears at public appearances. “They question if we need to have 120 beds in our jail, they question the cost of the jail … the cost per bed is high because of the fact that we are trying to build in all of the services that we believe people need to have in order to get out of the system.”
Included in the bond measure:
• Sheriff’s office, emergency operations center and jail with up to 120 beds and dedicated areas to provide mental health and addiction services.
• Sunset building renovations to expand capacity for mental health services in the county’s Children and Family Program.
• Homelessness services, including a navigation resource center in partnership with the Corvallis Drop-in Center.
The county’s overhaul of the justice system includes various components that are already underway and not dependent on the bond measure’s passage, including a new courthouse and district attorney’s office, the Benton County Crisis Center in downtown Corvallis and the land acquisition. In addition, other programs related to mental health crisis outreach and training are in the mix.
The $110 million bond measure, if approved by voters, would increase taxes by an estimated $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.
Augerot said the price tag is what she hears about the most when talking to residents about the bond measure.
“People are very conscious of the fact that a shortage of housing already increasing the cost of housing is a challenge,” Augerot said. “But at this level of increase, I think that’s doable for the majority of people in the county.”
Out of the $110 million bond measure funds, $104.7 million would go toward the correctional facility, sheriff’s office and emergency operations center.
The overall cost for the Justice System Improvement Program projects in their entirety is estimated at $184.6 million. Beyond the proposed bond measure, other funding sources include those from the county ($43.8 million), state ($28.8 million) and federal government ($2 million).
A controversial component of the project was the county’s use of eminent domain to acquire the 29-acre site, located southwest of the HP campus on the northern edge of Corvallis. The county made an initial offer to the property owner and after that transaction did not materialize, a circuit court filing asked for the land to be condemned for use in public safety and welfare. A trial date in Benton County Circuit Court is scheduled to occur early next year to establish a fair market value for the property.
“Eminent domain is a problem in some corners of the community but it hasn’t been a major issue for people,” Augerot said while talking about what she’s heard during public events.
If the bond measure fails on the ballot, the county will move forward with the courthouse and district attorney’s office construction since it already owns the land.
“We will then mount a Plan B at some point in the future,” Augerot said. “That is a huge piece … site selection took more time and effort than any other single element of the whole project.”
During their talk on April 20 at the chamber luncheon, Van Arsdall shared statistics on how the current jail, built in 1976, fails to serve the population. For example, last year, the jail was closed 22 times for lack of available beds, he said.
The Benton County Voters’ Pamphlet shows several in favor of Measure 2-140 — 14 statements from various organizations and individuals were published. The pamphlet also includes four arguments with details that outline their opposition to the measure.