A bond to pay for construction of a new jail in Ferndale might not make the August ballot as planned. Some Whatcom County Council members have reservations about the project and question whether it does enough to support people with mental illness and chemical dependency.
County Executive Jack Louws, who is developing the jail plan with a hired consultant, said the county already does a good job helping those people and has an opportunity to tap into a new funding source to further improve mental-health care.
Louws has been encouraging the council to put a bond measure on the Aug. 4 ballot. The deadline for placing a resolution on that ballot is May 8, and the council has three more meetings before then. Council is tentatively scheduled to vote April 28 whether to present the measure to voters in August.
The estimated cost of the bond, if approved by a simple majority of voters, would be $104 million. The county would pay it off with a 0.2 percent sales tax increase. Shoppers, whether from Whatcom County or out of the area, would see a 20-cent increase in the cost of a $100 item.
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A lot must happen before the council’s ballot decision on April 28. In addition to council members weighing what type of measure to put on the ballot, the seven Whatcom cities must negotiate with the county over how to share the new sales tax revenue.
“One of the concerns is, we have this compressed timeline,” County Council member Carl Weimer said in an interview Monday, March 30. “It feels like a train is moving pretty fast, and they’re asking us to jump on.”
Council members Weimer and Ken Mann say they are unsure the administration can respond in a few weeks to what could end up being significant changes to the jail plan, intended to establish better mental-health and substance-abuse care.
Mann said it was turning into a “missed opportunity” because the Executive’s Office has had years, not weeks, to research those types of changes.
Over the past two years, council has given “clear guidance to staff that we want a full exploration of jail alternatives and diversion programs,” Mann said.
One idea that has received a lot of attention is the creation of a crisis center that would provide better care than the jail or the hospital emergency room to people with mental-health problems and addictions.
“My initial reaction is that they have completely dropped that aspect of the entire thing,” Mann said. “I feel like clear guidance from council was, if not forgotten, then ignored or overruled.”
The discussion of diversion programs — getting people who commit crimes because of substance abuse or mental illness into treatment rather than into jail — has been on hold the past two years, Weimer said.
“People kept being told by the administration we’re not at that part of the process yet,” Weimer said. “Now we see the vote on the jail coming at us, and we still haven’t seen that opportunity.”
Louws prepared a statement on Monday, March 30, in response to council’s concerns.
“I’m looking forward to engaging the council on the issues surrounding the construction of the new jail, including alternatives to incarceration,” Louws said.
That engagement begins at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, March 31, when Louws presents the plan to the full council at the County Courthouse, 311 Grand Ave.
“I’ll be identifying that the county is spending over $4 million per year on programs that are related to public health and safety,” Louws said. “We are proposing a jail that is smaller in size based on population than our peer counties in the state, in my mind due to the excellent work the Board of Health, staff and the administration is doing.”
A predesign report on the jail from September 2013 anticipated that jail population will grow at the same rate as the county population, in line with the recent trend. Phase 1 of the new jail would have 521 beds, to relieve overcrowding in the 260-bed jail at the courthouse and the 150-bed work center on Division Street.
Mann acknowledged in an interview the executive’s point about a lower jail population per capita.
“I say that’s great. Let’s get it lower,” Mann said. “It’s just too expensive to cycle these people in and out of the county jail.”
At Mann’s invitation, the executive director of the North Sound Mental Health Administration, Joe Valentine, will speak to council at 11 a.m. Tuesday about possibly supporting the operation of a crisis center, if the county builds it.
The county already has $3 million available for construction of a crisis center, Louws said.
The potential money for day-to-day operations of a crisis center was made possible by the Affordable Care Act, council members and Louws said. County Health Department staff are already in discussions with North Sound to pursue the funding option, the executive said.
Another, simpler and less expensive way to reduce incarceration would be to re-instate the part-time county employee who called defendants to remind them of their court hearings on the next day. That idea came from county judges, Weimer said.
When that person was on the job, before it was eliminated during the recession, “the number of people in jail dropped,” Weimer said. “That’s a pretty cheap fix.”
Council member Pete Kremen said he had a more general concern about the jail, in addition to the need for diversion programs: the project’s “monumental” cost.
The reported $104 million needed to build the jail, which would come from the voter-approved sales tax, doesn’t include the ongoing cost of jail operations, Kremen said. (Nor does it include the $18.5 million cost of the attached sheriff’s headquarters, which would come from existing county funds.)
“We’re going to be incarcerating more people, and with that comes an ongoing cost that needs to be known by the voters and factored in when they make their decision,” Kremen said.
Several council members, including Kremen, said the need for a new jail is clear. The courthouse facility is overcrowded and in disrepair.
“I’m definitely concerned about the voters rejecting something because of a monumental price tag and subsequent sticker shock,” Kremen said. “I’d like the public to at least have the ability to participate in some way and help shape whatever ballot measure we put before them, so there’s a better likelihood it will get approved.”