April 26, 2001 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

The look of the jail will be changing, no doubt about it.

Just what that change will be is still undetermined, though, until Union County Undersheriff Dana Wright and Sheriff Steve Oliver meet with corrections deputies and jail staff and the Union County commissioners.

Wright, who manages the jail, said he had word Thursday that Wallowa County was sending an official letter to Union County ending the jail contract between the two counties beginning July 1.

Wallowa County will be transporting its inmates to Umatilla County.

The issue is money.

Wallowa County currently pays Union County $238,204 a year in exchange for a guaranteed 10 beds per day in the jail in La Grande. Wallowa County pays the fee whether or not the beds are used.

Umatilla County, which now has a large new jail, has about 125 beds available beyond what it needs.

Umatilla County has offered to charge Wallowa County only for the actual inmates that are housed there, at a rate of $50 per bed. Union County charges Wallowa County a fee of slightly more than $65 per bed per day.

Wright, anticipating that Wallowa County would go with Umatilla Countys offer, has been putting options together about what the financial loss would mean to Union Countys jail operations.

His list, detailed in The Observer a week ago, ranges from no changes to closing down some of the jails programs, to closing the jail completely and sending all Union County prisoners to the Umatilla County jail.

Wright said he had expected Wallowa County to reject Union Countys counteroffer before getting notification of the letter.

Union County had offered in a letter Monday to cut back the contract so that Wallowa County would pay Union County for eight, rather than 10, beds. If Wallowa County needed a ninth or tenth bed, they would not be charged for them. The price per bed would stay the same for the first eight beds.

Wright refused to identify which option he and the sheriff considered their best with the loss of the Wallowa County funds, but said they had come up with a preferred option.

Well call a special meeting with the jail staff if Wallowa County pulls out, Wright said.

After that special meeting, expected within the next few days, the preferred option will be presented to the Union County commissioners.

Hanging on the decisions made in the next weeks are the jail-based jobs of four sergeants, eight corrections officers, a house arrest officer, a work center officer, a cook and a half-time nurse at the jail, Wright explained.

With the options for jail operations discussed last week, it would be difficult to maintain all those positions without the Wallowa County contract. Wrights proposals could reduce the staff by two officers to nearly all.