Multnomah County commissioners voted today to wash their hands of the unused and money-draining Wapato Jail facility, formally approving the sale of the boondoggle building to a local developer.
Commissioners voted 4-1 at Thursday's board meeting to sell the unused county-owned 155,400-square-foot building and 18.4-acre property for $10.8 million to Kehoe Northwest Properties. The so-far useless building cost taxpayers more than $90 million to build and maintain, the Portland Tribune reported. In 1996, county voters originally approved spending $46 million to build the jail. It was built a dozen years ago. It'll now serve a purpose: a medical device distribution center.
The board said the $10.8 was well above the market value, saying it was valued at $8.6 million. The money from the sale will be used for "housing stabilization Services," per a resolution.
It was "one of the few viable officers we received," Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. "I do not want to repeat the mistakes of our past."
Commissioner Loretta Smith, the lone deal dissenter on the board, had long advocated that the building in an industrial section in North Portland be used as a homeless shelter with more than 500 beds, despite the logistical and financial problems that would be have to be overcome.
"I don't consider Wapato to an albatross or white elephant," Smith said. She wanted to further explore options to getting around the zoning restrictions that would prevent a homeless shelter there. She wanted to examine more bids for the property. "This is a perfect opportunity—we are losing a giant opportunity to see if we can serve folks... We did not fully vet this."
The Portland Police Association—the rank-and-file police union—urged commissioners yesterday to turn it into a homeless shelter: "The county has spent millions and millions on homeless issues and our politicians have failed us time and again with programs and plans that bring nominal results," PPA President Daryl Turner wrote. "It is time to try something different; invest in Wapato as a pilot program."
Stuart Emmons, a local architect and likely Portland City Council Candidate, wrote this week that he wanted the board to halt the sale "until a professional, independent review has been done on the merits and risks associated with the Kehoe offer. In addition, the two (at least) other proposals submitted that propose a shelter for people experiencing homelessness should be reviewed and analyzed by independent professionals for long term benefit to the County’s residents."
Other commissioners disagreed with that premise.
"I still really struggle with this whole discussion, but I've come to realize it doesn't make financial or human sense" to use the Wapato facility as a homeless shelter like Smith, and many citizens who showed up for public comment, wanted to, Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. Meieran called that position "disingenuous" based on the information the board had. They'd have to overcome zoning hurdles, the inconvenient location, the costly maintenance, and that they'd have to "drain" every other homelessness service in the county to properly run it, she said.
"Decades ago, Multnomah County made a mistake," County Chair Deborah Kafoury said today, clearly happy to get the ball rolling on the divorce from the "embarrassing reminder" of bad spending that's been plaguing the county for years. She said that converting the facility into a homeless shelter would be "throwing good money after bad."