Budget cuts threaten jail, 9-1-1 service in Columbia County

Budget cuts threaten jail, 9-1-1 service in Columbia County »Play Video
A budget crisis in Columbia County threatens to lead to the closure of the county's jail. Additionally, 9-1-1 calls may go unanswered.

ST. HELENS, Ore. – Imagine calling 9-1-1 and being told there's no one available to help you.

Funding cuts have made that a reality in some southern Oregon counties. But emergency calls in Columbia County are also at risk of going unanswered.

To deal with a county cash crunch Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said the county has taken all kinds of cost-cutting measures – like no longer watering the grass at the sheriff's office. But now landscaping is the least of the sheriff's worries.

"I can't see our sheriff's office taking another 40 percent cut and being able to survive over the next five years," Dickerson said.

He says he already runs the jail with minimum staff and it is at risk of closing. He says the only thing keeping the lights on is federal payments for housing federal inmates.

"In our coming budget year, we cannot lose any more positions," he said. "We're releasing 500 inmates a year early. That's a lot of inmates for this size of community (of) 50,000 people."

Dickerson said starting July 1, more reductions are coming. Instead of having room for 150 local inmates there will only be enough beds for 25.

Additionally, sometimes there's only one deputy patrolling the entire county. At other times there's no one on duty.

"We have someone on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That might mean a call to their house, waking them up in the middle of the night, telling them to get their uniform on and then go. That's gonna take some time, but at least we're sending somebody," Dickerson said.

He warns those on-call hours are in jeopardy of eventually going away.

"We are shrinking. We are getting to the place where we're not sure if we have to take more cuts if we'll be able to keep the jail open – if we'll be able to have a patrol. We don't know," Dickerson said.

The budget crunch also means that search and rescue is run mostly by volunteers.

Budget reductions are nothing new for many of Oregon's counties but quality of life is now top of mind. And a call for help several hundred miles away is a wake-up call.

Last summer a Josephine County woman called for help. Dispatchers told her there was no one to send. Her ex-boyfriend raped and assaulted her.

The sheriff in that county blames the lack of response on a cash crunch.

Back in Columbia County, Dickerson says calls are occasionally already going unanswered.

"I don't want to be alarmist in any way," he said. "However, I don't live in the city. I live with my family out in the county. And knowing that help could be a long ways away even for my own family, yeah, it bothers me."

What bothers him most is how little control he has over cash-constraints facing his community. He says Columbia County is as financially stressed as several southern Oregon counties that now have problems funding public safety.

He credits that stress to the loss of county timber payments and says less than half of his current budget comes from taxpayers.

Dickerson calls it a community challenge.

"By and large, it's our responsibility as citizens of Columbia County to make sure we have the resources we need," he said. "This is not their problem. This is not my problem. It's all of our problem."   

Dickerson said if the jail does shut down, taxpayers will continue paying for the building and it will sit there empty. The bond won’t be paid off for another decade.

He says he's done everything he can do at this point to keep things running.

For perspective, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office is actually hiring. A spokesperson said they've reached out to southern Oregon counties to find people who’ve been laid off there to fill 16 open positions.