Umatilla County voters to decide public safety levies

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MILTON-FREEWATER — On Sept. 15 Umatilla County dispatch received a report of a stolen vehicle north of Milton-Freewater. The only Umatilla County Deputy on duty at the time was busy handling a domestic violence call near Meacham, more than 50 miles away.

The call was handled by a Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office deputy, who detained a 15-year-old for Umatilla County deputies.

When the Walla Walla County deputy arrived, the teen had wrecked one vehicle and was attempting to steal another, according to the deputy’s report.

The two counties have a mutual aid agreement, and it isn’t unusual that Walla Walla County deputies cross the state line to help law enforcement in northern Umatilla County.

A precise number of calls, however, wasn’t available for this story.

An Oct. 14 request for information from Walla Walla County would take 20 days, according to Mark Spinks, county public records clerk.

Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan said he wasn’t aware of an exact number of times Walla Walla County deputies responded to calls in Umatilla County.

“I just know there’s a lot of cross-over stuff that happens,” Rowan said.

Rowan hopes to eliminate the need to call out-of-state help by increasing the number of patrol deputies and the number of jail staff in Umatilla County.

In a presentation to a tea party group in Milton-Freewater on Oct. 15, Rowan outlined two levies that will raise a projected $3.8 million dollars for the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office.

The two levies on the Nov. 5 ballot would raise the property tax rate for county residents from $2.84 to $4.18 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, a roughly 47 percent increase.

The first levy of 40 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation would fund the county jail.

The 94-cent levy would fund 18 additional patrol deputies. Residents in the incorporated areas of the county would pay only the 40-cent tax.

Umatilla County Commissioner Larry Givens also attended the Oct. 15 meeting and threw his support behind Rowan’s proposals.

“No one wants more taxes,” Givens said. “It’s the only way we see to correct the crime issues in Umatilla County.”

According to Rowan and Givens, the Sheriff’s Office currently employs seven deputies who are charged with patrolling a 3,200-square-mile county with a population of 77,000.

Roughly 25,000 residents live in unincorporated areas.

Rowan hopes to more than double the number of patrol deputies.

“It’s a very big county,” Rowan said, claiming the staffing levels at the Sheriff’s Office are far too low.

“What kind of conservator of the peace can I be in that environment?”

He said having more deputies will enable “24-7 operations in the three major portions of the county.”

The additional jail funding will increase the number of inmates the facility will hold, Rowan said, adding that currently the number of inmates the jail can house is between 140 and 160 a day.

The jail is equipped to house 252 inmates, but there aren’t enough people on staff to handle that number, according to Rowan.

“(Criminals) know they can get out before their case is heard,” Rowan said.

“We want to do away with the forced releases.”

Ballots for the Nov. 5 election have been mailed to county residents.

Luke Hegdal can be reached at lukehegdal@wwub.com or 526-8326.

This story has been updated since its original publication.

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