Josephine County's crime levy — close, but not good enough

Gil Gilbertson sighed deeply as his eyes scanned the preliminary results of a Josephine County criminal justice tax measure Tuesday evening.

"I'm disappointed," the sheriff said. "But it doesn't surprise me."

Measure 17.49 failed 51 to 49 percent. The three-year tax would have generated about $9.1 million for the county jail, Juvenile Justice Center, District Attorney's Office, sheriff's patrols and civil services, court services, Animal Protection and, potentially, school security resources.

Of the county's 50,944 registered voters, 13,366 opposed the tax that would have cost property owners $1.48 per $1,000 of assessed property value, about $296 a year on a property assessed at $200,000.

According to the Clerk's Office, 12,827 voters supported the tax increase. Only 539 votes separated the two.

Gilbertson was at the Wild River Brewing & Pizza Co. in Grants Pass waiting for election results with members of the nonprofit group Securing Our Safety (SOS), the political action committee Replacing Essential Services Today Required by Everyone and other supporters of the public safety proposal.

Gilbertson said the outcome was a step forward from the failure of a public safety measure last May that, in concert with the end of a federal subsidy, resulted in a $12 million budget shortfall, layoffs of about 90 criminal justice workers and the near collapse of the local criminal justice system. Last year's measure failed by a margin of 15 percent.

But when the first round of results came in from the Clerk's Office shortly after 8 p.m., there was no cheering.

SOS member and Josephine County Budget Committee Chairman Pat Fahey bowed his head and shook it side to side.

"It's tough," he said afterward. "I think we'll double-down and work harder for the next one. We'll be meeting next week."

Mark Gatlin of the Grants Pass City Council and a member of SOS, said the effort to reach voters and impress them with the importance of the justice system hasn't been a total loss. SOS staged a series of events to draw attention to the cause, including a candlelight vigil at the nearly vacant Juvenile Justice Building, marching through Grants Pass and pulling a Sheriff's Office vehicle up Sixth Street.

"We've gained a lot of momentum," Gatlin said. "A lot of that has come from victims. Unfortunately we'll gain more momentum as more victims suffer. I hate to see our community like this. But we will prevail."

Neil Appleton has volunteered for the Sheriff's Office for the past six years. In that time, he has seen crime go up and property values go down because of lack of law enforcement.

"This is such a disappointment," Appleton said. "At this point, I'm wondering when the state is going to come in and take over."

The Josephine County Jail, already reduced to 100 inmates from about 150, might be cut still further come July 1, pending the results of ongoing county budget discussions. This morning, the 262-bed jail held only 74 local inmates, because of budget cuts. Gilbertson said without additional funding he will have to cap the number of inmates in the jail at 60 for the safety of jailers and prisoners.

Further cuts to rural sheriff's patrols might soon occur, too. Sheriff's patrol deputies are on duty only 40 hours per week, with the Oregon State Police responding at other times to only the most serious incidents.

"We're just going to look at moving forward," Gilbertson said. "We've got what we've got. The commissioners have a very, very tough road ahead of them."

Shaun Hall and Jeff Duewel of the Daily Courier contributed to this report.

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