New jail's size, contamination of nearby soils, likely topics for Whatcom council

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 4, 2013 

The Whatcom County Council will hear the latest on a proposed jail to be built in Ferndale, but some of the biggest questions might not be answered for another month.

Jail consultant DLR Group will give its second jail update to the council in two months, on Tuesday, Aug. 6. Executive Jack Louws would not comment on the specifics of the presentation until after he meets with the consultant the day before.

DLR Group could be ready to discuss the results of soil samples taken in July to check for contamination at two locations: near a buried hazardous waste pit just off the jail property, and on the west side of the property, where underground fuel tanks were stored. The sampling results would be ready by the end of July, the soil-testing subcontractor, Hart Crowser Inc., said in June.

Louws called for the soil tests to help determine development costs for the 40-acre jail site at the corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue.

A more significant question is how big to build a new jail, a decision which would have a significant impact on construction costs and operating costs in the years ahead.

Council member Ken Mann said he wants to hear a follow-up to DLR Group's June 4 presentation of the "needs assessment," which Mann found to be inadequate. The firm estimated future inmate populations by extending population trends on a graph.

The group didn't account for changes in the law regarding marijuana and other crimes, or the effect that alternative programs such as drug or mental-health treatment would have on future inmate numbers.

"That's nowhere near the level of rigor we need to apply to our needs analysis," an obviously frustrated Mann said at the June 4 meeting. Because of his concerns, Mann was invited to Monday's meeting with the executive and DLR Group.

"If they don't have a better needs analysis, it will be impossible for me to get behind any jail-planning effort," Mann said in an interview Friday, Aug. 2.

Louws defended DLR Group's simpler approach. For a jail that will be in use for decades, a detailed analysis based on what is known now about criminal law, sentencing guidelines and alternative programs would be of little use, he suggested.

"The jail size issue and the programming issues that we have with this facility ... for the next 20 to 25 years are virtually impossible to comprehend," Louws said in June.

The consultant is scheduled to release a report in September that will include jail size, basic building design, and estimates of the cost of construction and ongoing operation of the jail. The council must decide by December whether it wants to buy the jail property.

County officials are pursuing a new jail due to overcrowding and safety problems at the existing jail and separate work center, which together can house up to 470 inmates. The new jail is on track to open in 2017.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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