A variety of factors, including a lack of consensus on how to pay for and build a new Whatcom County Jail, likely played into the voters’ decision to turn down a jail sales tax measure on Nov. 3.
“You know, it wasn’t just a one-sided tether, it was a multitude of constituencies that had problems with it one way or the other,” said Charlie Crabtree, chairman of the Whatcom County Republicans, which endorsed the tax measure.
Crabtree said there were likely several influencing factors, including:
▪ concerns about using a sales tax rather than a property tax to fund the project;
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▪ concerns the measure would max out the public safety tax capacity into the foreseeable future;
▪ concerns about ensuring mental health services are provided;
▪ the perception that a 2004 jail sales tax was not used in the way intended;
▪ the Bellingham police and firefighters’ unions coming out against the measure;
▪ the fact the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County had not reached agreement on a contract to pay for and build the new facility.
Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University and recently elected County Council member, also said the lack of consensus, including among Bellingham police and firefighters, may have influenced voters.
“You have Bellingham City Council essentially opposing it, the Bellingham mayor opposing it — those are the signals the voters in the city of Bellingham are getting,” Donovan said. “There was a pretty active campaign against it this time.”
A lack of polling data in the county makes it hard to be sure exactly what influenced voters, but a look at precinct results shows that only 8 of 68 Bellingham precincts favored the measure. About 60 percent of Bellingham voters rejected it.
Several areas outside the city also rejected the plan, including Lummi Island and Lummi Reservation, the precincts south of Bellingham, some areas surrounding Ferndale, and the seven precincts that make up the eastern-most part of the county.
The six small cities all passed the jail tax measure to varying degrees.
Lynden gave the most support by percentage, with 67.8 percent favoring the sales tax, and all 11 precincts passing the measure.
Blaine and Everson also had all precincts pass the measure, with 62.6 percent and 62 percent passing the measure, respectively.
Sumas and Nooksack voters favored the measure with Sumas at 59.4 percent, Nooksack at 56.9 percent.
Ferndale’s split, with 50.7 percent in favor, fell just short of the general split in the unincorporated county, where 51 percent of voters supported the measure.
Countywide the measure failed with 51.4 percent of votes against it, as of Nov. 13. The Whatcom County Auditor’s office estimates 40 ballots remain to be counted, and the vote will be certified on Nov. 24.
By the time of the election, Bellingham City Council was the sole party that hadn’t signed onto an agreement crafted by Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws that spelled out exactly how the proposed 0.2 percent sales tax (20 cents per $100 purchase) would be spent and split between the county and the cities.
Not having Bellingham 100 percent on board played a huge role.
Jack Louws, Whatcom County executive
Louws said he put the agreement together in large part to address the perception among community members that the 2004 jail sales tax had been misused.
“I was taking a lot of criticism that we passed one in 2004 and we didn’t build a new jail,” Louws said in an interview Tuesday, Nov. 17. “We should have. I wasn’t involved at that time.”
Part of the 0.1 percent tax voters passed in 2004 was used to build the existing minimum security facility, which takes stress off the main jail next to the courthouse. The minimum security facility was designed to be a temporary fix until the new jail could be built, but nearly a decade after it opened the county is still working to build one.
More than half of the proceeds from that 2004 tax have gone to pay for the operations of the minimum security facility. The rest of the revenue was split between the cities to help pay for their daily costs to keep inmates in the jail, used to pay for needed repairs at the main jail, and helped pay for design and consultant work while planning for the new jail.
To assure people concerned about the use of the 2004 tax, Louws said he wanted to have a sealed deal in place before the election. But the county and Bellingham failed to reach agreement before ballots went out to voters.
“Not having Bellingham 100 percent on board played a huge role,” Louws said, of the final tally.
Bellingham requested the chance to negotiate the amount it would pay for construction of the facility, the way the current and future tax would be divvied up, and asked to have commitments to alternatives to jail put in ink. Throughout the process, both sides expressed frustration about the movement, or lack thereof, of their counterparts “across the street” (city hall and the county administration sit kitty-corner from one another in Bellingham).
“I think if we had waited until February and got some movement towards Bellingham’s concerns, you would have had a very different campaign and consensus,” Donovan said. “We’re going to have to do that at some point. We’re going to have to go back to the voters.”
For months, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo has made it clear that he will take immediate steps to address overcrowding and other issues in the jail as soon as current contracts expire at the end of December.
At this point, the county likely will try to extend the existing contracts with Bellingham and other jurisdictions for another six months, Louws said.
During that six-month period, he said, the county will analyze the rates that are charged per inmate and determine what that amount will be with a lower population. Elfo has said he wants to reduce the main jail population to around 212 inmates rather than the higher numbers often seen. On Monday, Nov. 16, the jail housed 241.
If the measure had passed, the new jail wouldn’t have opened until 2019. Even if voters approve a jail plan within a year or two, Louws said he expected it would be at least six years before the county would get a new jail.
As a result, the county also will decide what fixes need to be made at either facility to shore them up, and calculate what fees will be charged for those repairs, Louws said.
We’re not looking for a cheaper solution. We believe leaving people in the community is best.
Kelli Linville, Bellingham mayor
Because the sheriff has made it clear that the county will need to prioritize its own inmates – the county is responsible for all felony inmates, no matter which jurisdiction books them in – and Bellingham is the largest municipal user of the jail and has the most resources, the city could be the first asked to move its inmates to other jails when the main building is full.
“I think we’re going to need a timely transfer out of the facility after their first appearance (in court) if they are not released on bail or on their own recognizance,” Elfo told the county’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force on Monday, Nov. 16. “This is an interim solution. We’re going to disconnect people from their family support systems, their lawyers and disconnect them from the continuity of care they need here in the community, especially when we’re talking about mental health.”
Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, also at the task force meeting, said the city’s preference is to keep inmates locally, but after all other options have been exhausted the city would look to move people to other facilities.
“But that’s directly in response to what the county has to do with the population of the jail, not something Bellingham wants to do in any way, shape or form,” Linville told the task force. “We’re not looking for a cheaper solution. We believe leaving people in the community is best.”