Benton County Sheriff Jef Van Arsdall answers a question while Commissioner Nancy Wyse, to his left, and Philomath city councilors listen during the March 13 meeting. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Coming up on the May 16 special election ballot, voters will decide if they want to fund through property taxes the construction of a new jail and other safety-related facilities as well as expand mental health and homelessness services.

Benton County Commissioner Nancy Wyse and Benton County Sheriff Jef Van Arsdall fielded questions from the Philomath City Council at a March 13 meeting before a vote took place on a proposed resolution that would document the city’s support for the county’s $110 million bond measure.

Council OKs purchase of property on Main Street

The Philomath City Council gave its stamp of approval Monday night to purchase a half-acre property on the corner of Main Street and North 20th Street. Councilors did not discuss any potential uses for the site but City Manager Chris Workman believes there could be some very good options. “I’m not a big advocate of…

Councilor Matt Lehman wanted to know if a 120-bed jail is really necessary. The sheriff responded with a rundown of the current situation with a 40-bed jail in Corvallis and additional beds that are rented in The Dalles and Polk County.

Van Arsdall said that with a 120-bed jail, there would be “consequences and accountability” and space for rehabilitative classes or anything related to bettering those who are incarcerated.

“There’s just no room in the facility and just given the fact that it was built in 1976 and when the doors opened, it was outdated the minute they opened it,” Van Arsdall said. “It was built as a temporary facility with a regional jail in mind.”

The regional jail never happened and Benton County got left behind on its options. Linn County (230-plus beds) and Polk County (190-plus) built new facilities and with jails in Lane (500-plus) and Lincoln (160-plus) counties added in, the region has nearly 1,100 beds.

“We have 40. That’s just what we’ve had since 1976 and there’s only so much you can do with a 40-bed facility,” said Van Arsdall, who followed up with examples of how the jail has been held together through the years.

Benton County spends between $1.2 million and $1.5 million to transport adults in custody to and from those other facilities.

“We need a modern facility … and that continuum of care,” Van Arsdall said. “We have an obligation to take care of the folks in our community because they’re going to be released back here.”

Councilor Jessica Andrade pointed to a Benton County Criminal Justice Assessment in 2019 that she said showed most of those arrested committed property or behavioral crimes. As a result, she wants to see more investments in services that could reduce the steps that lead to incarceration rather than the actual incarceration.

Wyse said the criminal justice assessment showed “that to have a functional justice system, all of the pieces need to be working together.” Van Arsdall said that in this population center, the reality is there are folks who will commit crimes and “so you have to find that balance” and followed up with several examples to illustrate the point.

Andrade later announced that she would not support the bond measure.

“If we truly want to create a more equitable and just community, these funds must primarily be invested in addressing homelessness and mental health issues, which are factors that often contribute to incarceration in our county,” she said. “Building a larger jail will only increase the number of people incarcerated without getting at the core reasons as to why incarceration happens in the first place.”

Councilor Christopher McMorran stressed his perspective that a modern facility is needed.

“My overarching thing with this is it feels like we’re in a bit of a crisis as far as our ability to actually respond to emergencies in our community and I don’t see that getting any better,” McMorran said. “We are not choosing between this plan and another plan, we are choosing between this plan and no plan. I think that’s my bottom line — I don’t want perfect to be the enemy of the good and I don’t see a viable alternative to this that would address the crisis our community is facing without spending another five to 10 years going through all the stuff we just went through.”

Eminent domain, the navigation center and various other issues also came up during the discussion. In the end, the council approved the resolution to support the bond measure on a 5-1 vote (Andrade nay, Mayor Chas Jones absent).

Utility rates increase

The city’s finance director, Mike Murzynsky, pointed to economic inflationary pressures that are having an impact on city operations as factors in recommending rate hikes for city utilities. Murzynsky said the city is facing a minimum 14.44% increase in costs and operating funds. Consumer Price Index and Public Employees Retirement System numbers along with anticipated salary increases were factored in.

The council unanimously approved the recommended increases.

Water and sewer base fees remain the same with the volume unit charge going up by 75 cents for water and 50 cents for sewer. In addition, there will be 5.56% increases to the street utility and storm drain fees — a percentage connected to the Engineering News-Record, a widely-accepted construction cost index that determines increases in system development charges. Various other account-related fees also see increases.

In other news out of the March 13 meeting:

• The evening started with an Urban Renewal Agency meeting. The council unanimously approved minutes and appointed Murzynsky to fill the role of budget officer.

• The council unanimously approved a consent agenda that included past meeting minutes and the appointment of Murzynsky as the 2023-24 budget officer.

• The council unanimously approved the appointments of John Simonson and Eric Wiggins to serve on the city’s Heritage Tree Selection Committee.

• The council unanimously approved the appointment of Mark Koeppe to the Budget Committee. One seat remains vacant.

• The council unanimously approved the city’s strategic plan as amended.

• Following a lengthy and detailed discussion on the city’s capital improvement plan, the council tabled a vote with the issue to be brought back to the April regular meeting.

• The council unanimously approved the $337,500 purchase of a corner lot at Main Street and North 20th Street for a purpose to be determined. See separate story.

• The council tabled a request by the mayor of up to $6,000 to help fund a city-hosted Memorial Day service/celebration.

• The council approved the second reading of an ordinance on a 5-1 vote (Andrade nay, Jones absent) to rezone property at the corner of South 19th Street and Chapel Drive from medium- to high-density residential.

• During the council and staff reports segment of the meeting, Council Teresa Nielson mentioned an effort she’s making to try to get a grocery store chain interested in Philomath and Lehman provided an update on a Highway 20 corridor safety study. See upcoming Three Things column for details.

• Andrade made a motion that city councilors be consulted and invited to any city-hosted press conferences, a reference to a recent Millpond Crossing neighborhood meeting that the city manager arranged to answer those homeowners’ questions with an invitation to the mayor and the press but not other councilors. The motion failed on a 4-2 vote (Andrade, Crocker yea; Causey, Lehman, McMorran, Nielson nay; Jones absent).

Brad Fuqua

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

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.

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