John McCroskey Commentary: Education is necessary for public to support 911 center tax, jail upgrades


It was a surprise and disappointment to recently to see where the jail has now restricted booking status. 

Meaning, sadly, some people who should go to jail, aren’t. I thought once we built the new jail, those days were behind us — at least in my lifetime. But here we are.

The other surprising fact was why it was restricted: lack of staffing. There was a time when public jobs like this were considered pretty attractive and drew lots of candidates. I guess times have changed there, too. And that was back when the jail was very old and the pay wasn’t great, either. But neither is true today.

Before the jail you see today, there was an old “new jail” mandated by the state to modernize it.  Actually the idea wasn’t bad, but those who made all the decisions really didn’t think it through. That sounds familiar today as well, in far too many areas of our lives. Costs to just live here continue to go up and there is just never enough money in government if you ask them.

Back then, when the state mandated the new old jail, they surveyed the county jails, determined what was needed, and promptly failed to pay for it because they missed the mark on cost.  Nothing new these days: If they want it, they typically lowball it.

And so they acted surprised when their demands far exceeded the costs they predicted. As a result, the “study” they compiled and spent money on — our money — went out the window.

They built jails that, despite their requirements, were inadequate. But they added the caveat that the jail population they arbitrarily determined (in my opinion) couldn’t be exceeded under the law. So we got a jail that held the same number of inmates as the old. That was their 20-year plan. 

Meanwhile, the state Legislature continued to make new laws that mandated county jail time. DUIs, suspended drivers licenses, domestic violence sentences increased, while changing sentencing laws to keep people who used to go to prison inside county jails. Promises to pay for that also never materialized until counties sued for the unfunded mandates. Even then, it didn’t cover the added costs counties had to deal with.

In the meantime, jails were full, and warrants piled up as the jail status rarely allowed them to be booked, with a few exceptions. To be fair, the counties could have added money and built more beds, but most (if not all) didn’t. So the old new jail opened near capacity, restricted bookings and until the law that created it sunset, that’s what we lived with.   

And it was frustrating for everyone.

After the law sunset and I became sheriff, I decided to remove restrictions and see what happened; for a while, it worked fine. 

Eventually, we knew we needed more space and, with the HIV issues, tuberculosis, mental health issues, drug addiction and all the rest, we also needed better medical space. The need for space was the impetus for the quonset hut in the parking lot which wasn’t pretty but functioned well for a time. We also used a floor in the courthouse annex as a minimum security that also had limits, but helped with a certain kind of inmate.

But both of those were inadequate as long-term solutions.

So after a long process involving stakeholders, we asked voters to pass a tax to fund it. Part of that process, perhaps the most important part, was having people not affiliated with me or the sheriff’s office, look for ways to avoid the tax, if possible. Once the need was determined, they were asked how we should pay for it? Thus, the educating of local voters began. 

It was some time before we put it on the ballot for voters to consider. Lewis County thankfully supported it. Which brings me to the recently failed 911 tax; I don’t think they took enough time to educate a pretty savvy voter before the vote (in my opinion). 

I’m certain I’m not alone in saying we want a solid 911 center and, as I age, I want one that functions well. But I don’t think enough time was spent preparing people about why the tax was needed and, specifically, what it would fund. I’m sure it didn’t help that inflation, gas, food, property taxes and all the rest are happening as well. I know I choked at my property assessment.

It didn’t pass, but there is still a need to update the system somehow and I’d like to know more.


John McCroskey was Lewis County sheriff from 1995 to 2005. He lives outside Chehalis and can be contacted at