Price tag for new Whatcom County jail: $109 million

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 10, 2013 

Possible Ferndale, Wash. jail site

Whatcom County officials are looking at this 40-acre property at the corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue in Ferndale as the site for a new county jail.

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

A proposed jail in Ferndale would cost $109 million once fully built, according to a study outlined Tuesday, Sept. 10, for the Whatcom County Council.

Phase 1 of the jail includes 521 inmate beds, with an anticipated completion date in 2017.

The jail cost includes full construction to meet the capacity of 649 inmates that the county is estimated to need by 2026, but furnishing those spaces would be delayed until necessary.

"Our goal is to have a jail with 521 beds and not need the 649 beds," Sheriff Bill Elfo said.

The current jail and work center are designed to hold 390 inmates. Those being held on lesser charges often are released because of space constraints.

Lori Coppenrath of the DLR Group, the county's consulting jail planner, said two of the 12 units built in phase 1 of jail construction would be reserved for "special needs" inmates, such as those with mental illness.

"It is planned for, and space is much more robust than what you have now," Coppenrath said.

The $109 million for a jail on LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue in Ferndale includes everything from permit costs and the price of the 40-acre lot to sales tax. The construction cost alone is estimated at $79 million - a figure that assumes construction will be halfway completed by 2016.

Now that county officials have a dollar figure to consider, a few more big steps remain, including completion of the environmental impact report, which will be presented to the public for comment on Sept. 26 in Ferndale. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at Ferndale City Council chambers, 5694 Second Ave.

The public will have until Oct. 14 to comment on the report.

County Council is scheduled to debate purchasing the LaBounty Drive property on Nov. 26 and Dec. 10. The county must purchase the lot, with a penciled-in cost of $7 million, by December or it hits the open market.

Then comes what might be the biggest hurdle: County officials, with public input, must figure out where to get $109 million. Additionally, the yearly operating cost of the new jail is projected to be $14.8 million, a 17 percent increase over the current jail budget.

County officials anticipate asking voters for a property or sales tax increase, perhaps two years from now.

"My initial thoughts on this are probably sales tax, but that's not my decision to make," county Executive Jack Louws said. The council will decide what sort of tax will go before voters to repay the bond. Voter approval must be at least 60 percent.

A 0.1 percent sales tax increase will deliver $50 million for debt repayment, Louws said. Council could ask for as much as a 0.2 percent hike.

"I'm looking forward to engaging the council ... the cities and of course the community members over the next few months to find the best path forward for us as it relates to paying for and operating this particular facility," Louws said.

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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