April 18, 2001 11:00 pm
Undersheriff Dana Wright ().
Undersheriff Dana Wright ().

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

Under one option being discussed in three counties, Union County could close its jail, forcing prisoners in Union and Wallowa counties to be shipped to Pendleton.

Cost estimates are still being calculated on several options, but one would see Union Countys jail become only a 72-hour temporary holding center. Inmates would be transported to the Umatilla County jail.

Money is the main reason officials are considering the changes.

Wallowa County would like to pay its deputies more and save some jail inmate costs.

Union County would like to keep inmate services current, staff employed and both its minimum security work center and higher security jail operating.

Umatilla County wants to open more beds and be able to hire staff at its new jail, built using a tax levy.

Union County Undersheriff Dana Wright is swimming in number-crunching, trying to meet county budgetary deadlines in Wallowa and Union counties while brainstorming options based on a number of maybes.

I keep changing things, Wright said several hours after he met Wednesday with Union County commissioners to update them on the possibilities and options.

Wright said Wallowa County pays Union County $238,204 a year for jail services or a guarantee of 10 prisoner beds a day.

If Union County only has six beds available when Wallowa County brings in a prisoner, Union County must move four Union County prisoners to another program, letting them out of the jail.

Wallowa County pays the per day, per bed charge regardless of how many prisoners it actually has in the Union County jail.

Over the past year, Wallowa County has averaged eight prisoners in the jail or work center daily.

Earlier this spring, as the

sheriffs office in Wallowa County looked at its budget, another option came up. Wallowa County could be billed just over $15 less per prisoner, with no set number of guaranteed jail beds, if it would transport prisoners to Umatilla County.

It could set up a video line between its courthouse and the Umatilla County jail, allowing for video arraignments of prisoners without additional transportation costs.

Umatilla County has 125 jail beds available but no supervisory staff for inmates. The county could hire more corrections deputies for jail duty if more prisoners were being housed.

Wright said that Umatilla County is in a situation not uncommon around Oregon.

It used a tax levy to build a jail based on the population growth estimate of the county over the next 25 years.

Once built the county will only budget for corrections deputies to handle the current need.

They overbuilt for what is needed, Wright said. Jails are cheap to build, but costly to staff.

With Umatilla Countys offer to Wallowa County on the table, Wallowa County came to Union County Sheriff Steve Oliver and Wright, who manages the Union County jail.

Wallowa County wants to know by Monday what Union County can offer it in a new jail contract.

The Umatilla County sheriff brought up the same deal with Oliver.

Oliver, facing the loss of Wallowa County money to operate the Union County jail, had Wright start looking at options.

We and Wallowa County could use 48 beds (in Umatilla County), Wright says, for less cost than it takes to operate the Union County jail.

With modern jail construction, Umatillas new jail has a central command post, requiring fewer corrections deputies to patrol the prisoners and is built on one level.

He (the jail commander) can watch 125 prisoners for the same cost I can watch 56, Wright said.

So Wright is putting numbers to options. At Wednesdays Union County Commission-ers meeting, seven options were presented by Wright and Oliver:

Things could stay just as they are, with Wallowa County continuing with the jail contract unchanged.

Wallowa County could end its contract and Union County could close its minimum security work center and end its house arrest and weekend work program.

Union County could simply close the work center and the house arrest program, shifting those deputies to other jobs.

Union County could shuffle its corrections deputies, cut back the upstairs jail beds and move more deputies to minimum security work. The shuffle would mean cutting corrections deputies by two.

All Union County inmates could be transported to Umatilla County, and Union County would operate only a 72-hour holding center for recently arrested inmates. This option would result in cutting the 15-member jail staff to about six, leaving nine sheriffs office employees, including two half-time deputies and the jail cook, employed.

Move all Union County inmates to Umatilla County, maintain a 72-hour holding facility and have the sheriffs office handle its own non-emergency dispatching. The county pays the 911 dispatch center $98,000 per year for non-emergency dispatching.

Union County could close the jail all together and transport every prisoner arrested to Umatilla County. Wright estimates that the savings would be minimal since more deputies would have to be on during every 24-hour period to be available for transporting inmates.

Actual costs of the options are still being calculated, Wright stressed.

Wright is considering an option that would keep the work center open and keep the weekend work crew in operation, but would eliminate all inmate programming (such as AA, NA, job searching, and others) and eliminate the house arrest program.

The last idea came about after the meeting with Union County commissioners Wednesday morning. Wright is due to have a cost proposal to Wallowa County Monday, he said, and his proposals to the Union County budget committee within days.

Union and Wallowa counties have a 60-day change-of-operation agreement, so no immediate change in the Union County jail operation will occur, said Wright.