A group of citizens pressuring the regional jail to end its contract to hold immigration detainees are now encouraging the jail board to ask voters again to pass a permanent tax rate.
In a letter presented to the jail board at its April 26 meeting, the newly formed NORCOR Community Resources Coalition recommended putting the tax levy back on the ballot, on the condition that it would mean termination of the federal contract to hold immigration detainees.
Last year, voters narrowly rejected a request by the regional jail to pass a permanent tax rate of 26 cents per $1,000 property valuation. It was the same tax rate as the just-retired 20-year bond levy that paid for the construction of the jail and would not have resulted in higher taxes.
The tax rate would have generated $1.3 million per year, which was seen as providing stability to the jail budget. The four member counties of the regional jail — Wasco, Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam — provide nearly half the funding, and they have historically taken turns struggling to make the supporting payments, called subsidies. Currently, Hood River County is struggling with a roughly $1.4 million budget deficit.
The tax rate failed by just 41 votes last year.
At the time of the vote last May, citizens had recently begun daily protests outside the regional jail in support of immigration detainees who were on a hunger strike against jail conditions.
The vote passed by 10 percentage points in the three smaller counties, but lost by 10 percentage points in Wasco County. The jail is located in The Dalles.
Several jail board members said after the vote’s failure that they believed the opposition by the protesters possibly had a role in the defeat of the ballot request. The jail board decided later that year not to go back to voters again.
The jail houses 25-30 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees per day on average. It is budgeting to get $730,000 in the next fiscal year for it.
At the same meeting, another letter was presented to the board, signed by 800 people from around the state, asking the jail to reinstate in-person visits with detainees.
The letter, from the Portland-based Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, said research indicates in-person visits are directly linked to improved mental health and said the board had the “power to help alleviate some of the suffering these families experience.”
The jail ended in-person visits for inmates some years ago as a cost-saving move.
Also at the same meeting, Jail Administrator Bryan Brandenburg tangled with immigration attorney MariRuth Petzing of Hood River over whether inmates put on a hold so ICE agents can come pick them up are allowed to post bail.
Petzing said that as of April 2, NORCOR will no longer be honoring ICE holds for local detainees. But she said that if they are under detention by immigration, they can’t post bail.
She said she’d been told by numerous people that they couldn’t post bail.
Brandenburg said they have been able to post bail, and have always been able to post bail.
Petzing replied, “That’s not true.”
The community group that recommended holding the tax rate vote again also recommended looking for alternate funding, including from foundations, and offered to assist with lobbying the legislature and state agencies and other funding entities.
It also proposes finding ways to better utilize space at the jail, which has 160 inmates now, but has a 212-inmate capacity.
It also proposed seeking partnerships with social service and educational entities to transform the jail into a vehicle for helping people become productive members of society.
The jail has numerous programs already, includparenting, substance abuse and anger management.
The group suggested the jail could become a specialized program, building on the small mental health unit begun at the jail last year. In a letter read to the board by Marolyn Wilks that it would reach out to the local faith community, orchardists, city and county leaders and key people at various agencies to gather more information and support.
“We want to make it known that there is a group of citizens who are steadfast in believing that NORCOR should not be a detention facility for immigrations, and who are dedicated to working with the NORCOR board and administration to help the facility fill multiple needs in our communities,” the letter stated.
The group also asked for detailed information on the actual costs of housing immigration detainees, so the group could understand the exact net revenues the jail realizes from housing detainees.
That way the group knows how much money would have to be replaced if the ICE contract ended.