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Measure 2-140 gives Benton County another shot at a new jail, as well as sheriff's office and homeless services

Benton County voters have a chance to generate $110 million for a new jail, sheriff’s office, and homeless services in this month’s election.

Measure 2-140 is the county’s fourth attempt at asking taxpayers to fund a new jail since the year 2000.

Inside the Benton County Jail, Lieutenant Jeremy Jewell walked through a drab, concrete corridor lined with cell doors, as other officers slid lunches into openings for inmates. He paused outside a heavy gate, and spoke into a small radio.

“Gate 2,” Jewell said before the gate clanged open. ”So this is going down to our property room, storage area, and access to the courthouse.”

The walls and ceiling are a mish-mash of cement patches and metal panels, indicating where conduits, pipes, and fixtures had to be found and updated.

Benton County Sheriff Jef Van Arsdall told KLCC that the nearly 50-year-old building is showing its age.

“It was built as a temporary holding facility, and it was immediately outdated as soon as they opened the doors,” he said.

Van Arsdall said the space in the downtown Corvallis facility is greatly limited for staff and inmates. If voters approve Measure 2-140, the money will provide a new facility with space for 120 beds. That’s almost five times larger than the original 1976 jail.

“It was a 27 bed (jail). We've modified it now to 40, and 50 with the bunking, but with the pandemic and classifications, the most we've had in custody at one time while I've been the sheriff's been like 34-35 in this facility," he said. “And I do rent 22 beds in The Dalles and 10 beds in Polk County. So that's 32 beds rented out of county that we pay for daily.”

Across the street at the Benton County Law Enforcement building, the Sheriff’s Office shares space and a parking lot with the Corvallis Police Department. Downstairs, the county’s Emergency Operations Center is in a cramped basement space that director Bryan Lee said is prone to flooding.

“This building was built a long time ago before a lot of the modern earthquake codes and standards," said Lee. "So there's a huge question about how this building will withstand a major catastrophic earthquake like a Cascadia earthquake. It's not to say that the building will completely collapse, but it could be totally unoccupiable at the very least.”

Tents and sleeping bags near busy road.
Brian Bull
Two tents near a highway overpass mark where some of Corvallis' unhoused community lives. Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot says the homeless population here has increased 85% over five years.

Hopes among many Benton County personnel run high for the passage of Measure 2-140, which would expand and upgrade facilities for law enforcement and emergency response. That’s important for Andrea Myhre, executive director of Corvallis Housing First, which addresses homelessness.

“It’s really unusual for an organization like ours to be in support of a measure like this,” said Myhre. “For our community – specifically for our community – we are really in need of facilities that are adequate and safe. What often happens in our community because of the inadequacy of our jail facilities, people that are a danger to themselves and others because of their criminal activity are often booked and released because there’s no space for them to be at the jail.”

The bulk of the measure’s revenue would go towards a new jail and sheriff’s center. It also includes $3 million for a homeless navigation center. That’s helped land the support of people like Allison Hobgood and Hezekiah Franklin, who work at the Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center. The facility serves up to 70 members of the unhoused community on a typical day.

“We see between 40 and 70 individuals a day and about 800 unduplicated people over the course of a year,” said Hobgood. “The reality for us is that even if things were to stay as they are, the space that we’re in is untenable in the long term, and so it would be a huge, huge asset for us to be able to find a building that accommodated the needs of our organization.”

“People are gettin’ straight from jail to streets, and they’re repeating the same cycle and we see those people and we try to help them in that small window,” added Franklin. “But then also we’re dealing with people who are mentally unstable and need to go to the hospital. But there’s no hospital to go to. People are being caught and released, and they’re just wandering around the streets.”

Not everyone is a fan of the proposal

The measure is not without its critics. Corvallis resident Ari Anders is a soil technician who plans to vote “No.”

Corvallis resident Ari Anders in wooded area.
Photo provided by Ari Anders.
Corvallis resident Ari Anders says there are better ways to address homelessness than what's offered in Measure 2-140, and plans to vote against it in the May special election. Anders adds that rather than increase the tax burden of Benton County residents, people are better off supporting their local economy.

“Despite claiming to be a measure that will improve mental health services, this bill is plainly the opposite,” said Anders. “What it really offers is an increased incarceration rate as a solution to the issue of housing instability.”

Other opponents of Measure 2-140 have said it’s a huge ask when many people are contending with inflation, increased property taxes, and housing expenses. The county says the bond would cost the owner of a home with a median value about $142 per year. The Corvallis Advocate newspaper has endorsed a “No” vote on the measure, suggesting it can be scaled back in a future election.

“I am excited about the potential for passage and optimistic about that. But we will come back again and try again, if we don’t succeed,” said Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot.

She acknowledged it’s a challenging time to be raising taxes on locals. However, for the undecided voter she presented this argument:

“It is not cheap. And it will continue to get more expensive if we delay," she said. "So my biggest pitch for people that are on the fence is that if we don’t invest now, it’s only going to get more costly, and we are intent upon providing the best services and facilities possible for all of our community members.”

Augerot and Sheriff Van Arsdall have campaigned heavily for Measure 2-140, holding informational sessions and knocking on doors. How voters respond to their arguments will be known in just over a week, with one of the largest infrastructure endeavors ever seen in Benton County’s history on the ballot for the May 16 election.

If the bond measure fails, Benton County would still proceed with plans to build a new courthouse and district attorney’s office this summer since it already owns the property for these sites. Those facilities will be paid for with a mix of county borrowing and state matching funds.

Copyright 2023, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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