Raising utility fees to hire more cops to put out chronic nuisance fires in Medford didn’t get a warm reception from the City Council Thursday night.
Instead, the council preferred seeking a $435,000 federal grant that would pay for three years, allowing the hiring of up to three officers. In addition, councilors thought some other funding source to help pay for the so-called livability team would be better than utility fee hikes.
“I’m not thrilled about a fee,” Councilor Tim D’Alessandro said.
The new officers, a code enforcement officer and a records specialist would be part of a “livability team” that would deal directly with difficult problems in neighborhoods. The cost of the program would be $560,000 a year.
To pay for the team, police suggested to the council that it increase the public safety fee on utility bills by $14.52 a year, or $1.21 a month. In addition the city might qualify for a federal grant for a three-year period, which would reduce the fee to $11.28 per year, or 94 cents a month.
The livability team members would not be responding to typical calls for service. Instead, they would deal with specific properties or specific issues that have become a chronic problem, such as a drug house or a problem on the Greenway.
The council didn’t take a vote on the issue at a study session, but the members indicated a preference to seek a federal grant and to find other funding sources to pay for the livability team, including looking at marijuana taxes.
Councilors debated the need for more proactive steps to deal with chronic problems, including issues along the Greenway and in the downtown regarding the homeless.
Councilor Dick Gordon, who initiated the discussion about the livability team last year, said he believes that a stronger police presence deters criminal activity.
“I’d like to see more boots on the ground in the downtown,” he said.
Gordon, like the other councilors, didn’t support raising the police safety fee that is part of city utility fees.
Prior to the discussion about the livability team, Sheriff Nate Sickler explained how the existing jail is encouraging some criminals to commit crimes. Based on a comparison with other .areas of the state, Jackson County has a far hire booking rate per thousand. Last year, the jail was forced to release 3,950 inmates to avoid overcrowding. Deschutes County had no forced releases.
“I really believe we are at a crisis state in community justice,” Sickler said. “Right now we’re kicking out the best of the worse.”
This community needs a 600 to 700-bed jail to house inmates. Currently the jail capacity is 292 beds. He said the number of failure to appear warrants has exploded, from 3,500 in 2015 to 6,000 in 2017.
Faced with the lack of jail beds, many councilors wondered where offenders would be placed if there is no jail capacity.
Councilor Kay Brooks said more policing doesn’t seem like a proactive approach since the jail is overcrowded and local mental health services are overwhelmed.
“I don’t feel like police officers should act like bellhops for our jail,”
Councilor Clay Bearnson said he could support the livability team as long as the city comes up with a more comprehensive approach to mental health and housing issues.
“Some sort of action plan needs to come out of this council,” he said. “If we really want to see results we have to have other options.”
Bearnson said he would support have more of a police presences on key nights in the downtown.
Councilor Mike Zarosinski said Medford police and other social service agencies can’t force people to take advantage of programs.
However, he supported many of the suggestions from other councilors.
“We’re all striving toward a similar goal,” he said.