Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan says two issues — marijuana and overcrowded jails — are having far-reaching consequences on Jackson County.
Speaking Monday at the Chamber Forum, Jordan told the gathering at Rogue Valley Country Club that 20 percent of Oregon’s licensed grow sites for marijuana are in Jackson County, and another 13 percent are in Josephine County.
Jordan said the impact of all those marijuana businesses sends ripples throughout numerous county departments:
• The county assessor’s office has to handle inquiries from people who believe their property should be worth more or has diminished in value because of nearby grows.
• The county clerk’s office has seen increased title searches related to grow areas.
• The county’s legal staff is involved in litigation, land-use hearings and code enforcement proceedings.
• The development office has doubled its typical 500 annual code complaints, “just with marijuana.”
“What that means,” he said, “is that our code enforcement officers — all three of them covering 2,800 square miles — are twice as busy, just because of marijuana.”
Health and Human Services is also dealing with more marijuana-related issues, he said. “Just because it is more accessible.”
• Growers grading without proper permits have led to headaches for roads crews, as well.
“We had a couple places where people graded and washed out whole mountainsides into county ditches or across county roads,” he said.
The costs aren’t being recovered from taxes.
“The tax we receive from marijuana doesn’t even come close to covering the cost impacts to the county,” Jordan said.
A retroactive marijuana tax payment for 21 months amounted to $500,000, he said. The county will receive about $1.2 million annually.
“That sounds like a lot of money, but we needed to double our code staff, we have code errands, go to court, our DA has to prosecute all these cases where people are coming in and stealing people’s marijuana, and hurting people. There is just a lot of stuff that costs a lot of money to handle with regard to marijuana.”
Jordan said 100 bills were submitted by the Legislature last session dealing with marijuana.
“Most of them have just put their hands up, in the end,” Jordan said. “Not everywhere in the state is impacted like Jackson County. We have less influence at the Legislature than counties where they don’t have the kind of impacts we have; it’s harder to get people to listen when that’s the case.”
As for jail overcrowding, the county is eying a new $100 million jail. Jordan said a well designed jail could triple capacity, while merely doubling operating costs. The present jail budget is $14 million and would rise to $28 million.
“In a project like this, the cost of $100 million is what shocks people, but it’s the ongoing operating costs that is really the heavy lift.”
Jordan explained how Portland built a jail but couldn’t afford to operate the new facility, so it has since sold it to a private firm that operates a homeless shelter.
For the past two decades, many offenders have been sentenced to mental health or drug and alcohol treatment programs rather than jail. However, there has been a growing number of pretrial defendants.
“What we have is a large, overbearing presence of pretrial people who are being arrested, brought to jail, who haven’t gone through the system yet,” Jordan said.
As a result, the county annually releases 4,000 people because of overcrowding. Among those are 3,000 who wouldn’t have been released due to the nature of their crime.
“We’re forced to release them, and we’re picking the best of the worst to release as opposed to those that we really don’t think will go out and cause harm or damage,” the administrator said.
Of 13,661 warrants issued in the county in 2017, 10,271, about 70 percent, were for defendants who failed to appear in court.
“The reason why someone fails to appear is because they get let out of jail before they go to court, and they just don’t show up, because they know if they get caught they’ll get let out of jail,” Jordan said.
Responding to an audience question about the per-bed cost for the proposed jail, Jordan noted state requirements for essential services facilities.
“There are all these requirements for buildings where you are going to have people locked up and unable to leave,” Jordan said. “The truth is you’re building 18- or 20-inch, concrete-reinforced rebar walls, and that costs a lot more money than putting up 2-by-4s and sheetrock.”
He said associated prevailing wage issues are less of an issue because the tight labor market has ratcheted-up overall construction pay.