Oregon

County Spends $58 Million on a Jail, Never Uses It, Sells it for $10 Million

The Oregon jail has sat empty since it opened in 2004.

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Empty Wapato Jail
Eli Duke/Flickr

The government of Multnomah County, Oregon, is selling a jail in Wapato to a private developer for $10 million. That's much less than it paid to build the place back in 2004—the facility cost $58 million—but you can't blame the county for wanting to unload it. In the 13 years since it was opened, the jail has never held a single prisoner.

In the meantime, the authorities spent $300,000 annually to maintain the empty structure, plus $3.5 million a year to service the debt undertaken to build the thing.

Jeff Reynolds, a Multnomah County homeowner since 2009, calls the county's management of the facility "absurd." Not only did the county fail "to use the property for its intended purpose," Reynolds complains, but it "compounded the problem by refusing to use it for anything else."

Predictably, the county's chief financial officer has blamed the mess on insufficient tax revenue. But lack of funds did not stop the county from spending $600,000 on public art projects at the jail site, including such memorable works as a $180,000 sculpture intended to represent a shipwreck. A train wreck might have been more appropriate.

The fact is that the facility was finished just as crime in the area was falling, so there wasn't an obvious need for the place. Attempts were periodically made to find a niche for it, but none of them succeeded. When a county commissioner proposed to bring in 150 inmates eligible for drug and alcohol treatment, he was blocked by the corrections deputies union, which stood to lose funding if the prisoners were shifted from where they were being held before. There were several attempts to have the state Department of Corrections take over the facility, perhaps turning it into a women's prison, but that path was abandoned when the county would only agree to lease, and not sell, the unused jail.

In 2014, the county solicited ideas for what to do with the property. Seven submissions were received, including proposals to turn the facility into a community college or a garden. All were rejected. In a 2016 housing emergency, the government considered making the place a homeless shelter. That notion was dropped too, partly because of the jail's isolated location and partly because officials didn't like the optics of storing the homeless behind bars.

So far the only people to make use of the empty jail are film crews, who have used it to shoot potato chip commercials and episodes of the TV show Grimm.

After this long odyssey of failure, the Wapato saga is finally coming to an end. On Tuesday, County Chair Deborah Kafour signed a Memorandum of Understanding to sell the facility to the California-based Pacific Development Partners LLC. So far the company has been cagy about its plans for the site, but at least it won't be a drain on taxpayers like Reynolds anymore.

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  1. Predictably, the county’s chief financial officer has blamed the mess on insufficient tax revenue.

    “We’re not bringing in enough money in order to afford to stop throwing money into this bonfire!”

    In the private sector, that’s a firin’. In the public sector, though, that’s just more proof of a take-charge attitude! Evidence: four years later, Mark Campbell is still the CFO of Multnomah County.

    1. Of course Campbell blames his constituency. “The same day voters let us go out and issue bonds to build Wapato, they created a tax system that made it unlikely that we would ever have funds to operate it,” he says, missing the entire point of what a Chief Financial Officer’s job is.

      1. The Chief Financial Officer’s job is to spend money. If he doesn’t have enough money to spend on all the things he wants, that just means he needs more money. There’s literally no other option.

  2. it “compounded the problem by refusing to use it for anything else.”

    Like a public school.

    1. You can’t turn a jail into a public school! People might take note of how few modifications are required!

      1. And if you actually educated kids in one, you may not need so many of the other.

      2. F-ing Daily Internet winner! Pick up your prize on your way out the door.

        Last one out gets the lights.

      3. I get the CMU design magazine and sometimes it features both prisons and schools. I once went around the office and no one could tell the difference between the school and the prison

        1. A lot of the food public schools get is labelled for school and prison use.

          1. Certain grades of beef are only approved “for institutional use,” which is exactly what that means.

  3. partly because officials didn’t like the optics of storing the homeless behind bars

    I’m surprised these goofs didn’t come up with the obvious solution: make being homeless illegal.

    1. Why not. It’s working with health care.

  4. The sale to the development company is not a good sign either. I am sure that the development company will be selling it to private prison companies or operating it as a private prison.

    Slavery and involuntary servitude are unconstitutional for people (businesses), so private prisons should be illegal. The 13th Amendment authorizes the government to punish only for those duly convicted to involuntary labor.

    1. The people incarcerated in private prisons are there for the same reason, and the same amount of time as people in state-run prisons – they have been duly convicted by our justice system. It’s just that instead of having the same financial geniuses who had this prison built running it, it is run for lower cost to the taxpayer (but, like, who cares) and the outrageous profits go to enrich greedy capitalists. Reason has been a supporter of private prisons since forever.

      1. All of the flaws of private prisons are equally prevalent in public prisons, except when bad things happen in public prisons there is somehow even less culpability on the part of the prison. Prison unions, like teachers unions and cop unions, look out only for themselves and protect the worst among them at all costs, with nobody to answer to.

      2. The notion of companies forcing and keeping people into involuntary servitude has not really been reviewed by the courts. The companies are trying to run this out before the SCOTUS determines that only the government can manage convicted persons.

        It is not the same for companies and their non-government employees compared to governments keeping people in jail and prison.

        They other key point of the 13th Amendment is that people have to convicted with their punishment being involuntary servitude and most people are not sentenced to labor.

  5. The construction of the jail, now valued at $40.4 million, was also supported by the state, which contributed $11.7 million, including $8.8 million in certificates of participation issued in 2003 and proceeds from other corrections-related COP issuances from 1996 to 2001, according to James Sinks, a spokesman for the Oregon State Treasury. The final payment on the debt will be made in November 2023, Sinks said.

    Sorry, Mr. Taxpayer Reynolds. You’re still on the hook.

  6. For those outside of Oregon, Multnomah County is … Portland. Obviously it’s bigger than just Portland. It manages to miss the high tech burbs immediately to the west, and stretches along the tourist corridor until it hits the foot of Mount Hood to the east. But population wise it’s all Portland.

    Now obviously government waste of this sort is not a partisan issue, but it’s deeply ironic that one of the most progressives cities on the planet has this problem. Enlightened right thinking concerned white progressives running things does not appear to be the solution. Darth Vader playing bagpipes on a unicycle (true story) may fix our broken social justice, but it can’t fix our broken fiscal justice.

    1. I’m not seeing the irony at all. Looks like simple economic logic, which we already know violates the religion of progressivism.

      1. Math is a social construct – we all know that.

  7. “There were several attempts to have the state Department of Corrections take over the facility, perhaps turning it into a women’s prison, but that path was abandoned when the county would only agree to lease, and not sell, the unused jail.”

    Obama faced the same kind of problem when he nationalized GM.

    In private enterprise, selling an asset at a loss to acquisition price isn’t a serious consideration. Because you overpaid for something in the past doesn’t mean selling it at market rates below acquisition price is a bad idea. An asset doesn’t lose value because you sold it. You lose money on something you overpaid for the day you bought it–not the day you sold it.

    Barack Obama wanted to hold GM–until it was worth more than he paid for it. In campaign politics, Obama could tell the idiot masses that GM was worth more than what Obama paid for it–and the taxpayers couldn’t quantify the money he lost on GM unless and until he sold it for less than he paid for it.

    I bet it was the same with this prison facility. If you lease it, the voters can’t conceptualize how much money they’ve lost on it, but the Department of Corrections was only willing to pay the market price to buy it–and that was below what it cost to build. So, I bet the county sat on it and just kept taking losses on maintenance, utilities, insurance, etc. until either a new regime took over after the last election or the losses became to great.

  8. The fact is that the facility was finished just as crime in the area was falling, so there wasn’t an obvious need for the place.

    I’m sure with all them Oregoners legally shootin up the marijuana the crime rate will go back up.

    1. I think even Portlandia will get pissed off about them taking a $48 million loss.

      Do you have any idea how much fruit sushi they could have bought with $48 million?

    2. The thing was probably planned in the 60s.

      Or, they just didn’t care whether it was needed or not so long as money was being funneled to special interests.

  9. “The government of Multnomah County, Oregon, is selling a jail in Wapato to a private developer for $10 million. That’s much less than it paid to build the place back in 2004?the facility cost $58 million?but you can’t blame the county for wanting to unload it. In the 13 years since it was opened, the jail has never held a single prisoner.”

    Progressives call that “stimulus”.

  10. wanna bet the person who buys the jail will now lease it back the the county and they will finally put prisoners in it

    1. It’s a sucker bet.

  11. So, $48 million flushed down the toilet for a prison that was never used. Approximately $250 million for their Oregon-Obamacare boondoggle that literally never provided health care to a single person and, about $130 million for the Columbia River Crossing which hasn’t yet seen a single shovelful of dirt turned over.

    But, the problem is that we’re just not collecting enough tax revenue.

    1. No,the problem is always that “we need to put the right people in charge.”

  12. Seven submissions were received, including proposals to turn the facility into a community college or a garden.

    “Use it to house the county’s decision makers.”

    1. Oh, if only!

  13. “I told them no low level atomic testing and no jail,” Zimmermann said, adding that the company won’t allow the reuse of the building for a detention center or similar operation. “That seemed to be their big worry, the jail.”

    So for some reason the county didn’t want the new owners to use it for a jail.

    1. They might get an inmate one day and make the county look stupid.

  14. The jail is the “Wapato Corrections Facility”; it isn’t “in Wapato”, which is a town in the Yakima Valley of Washington.

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