Whatcom County decision-makers soon could be asked whether to repair two existing Whatcom County Jail buildings and whether they should again ask voters to pay for a new jail, according to county officials.
Speaking at the Northwest Business Club’s regular luncheon Wednesday, Jan. 13, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo and Executive Jack Louws outlined what they see as the next steps since voters rejected a proposal to pay for a new jail with a sales tax increase in November.
First off: lower the population in the jail, which will be used for the foreseeable future, the sheriff said.
Jail transfers limited
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Elfo put Bellingham and other jail users on notice late last year that he would try to bring the average daily population down to about 212 in the main jail.
Bellingham City Council approved an as-needed contract to keep some inmates in the Yakima County Jail, but there are already issues with that, Elfo said.
Jail staff had agreed to only transfer misdemeanor Bellingham inmates in the main jail who didn’t have charges in other courts. The county is responsible for holding all felony charges, regardless of booking agency.
On Tuesday, Jan. 12, Jail Chief Wendy Jones sent the city a list of six inmates — two who had been sentenced, four who had not — to be moved to Yakima on Friday.
But the same day, Bellingham Municipal Court Judge Debra Lev signed an order that restricts the transfer only to inmates who have already been sentenced.
“The city judge is prohibiting us from transferring anyone from the jail that is pre-trial,” Elfo said, “so that puts us in a real bind.”
In an email to City Attorney Peter Ruffatto Wednesday afternoon, Elfo said he and city staff had agreed on Tuesday to move seven Bellingham inmates to Yakima this week, but with the court’s order, only four people would be eligible for transfer. He wrote that moving two of those four inmates may not make sense, as they are due to be released soon (Jan. 22 and Jan. 25).
“In previous meetings on jail issues, City Staff advised that transferring pre-trial inmates would be an acceptable option,” Elfo wrote. “Yesterday’s court order changes that situation unless you have the ability to obtain timely and routine authority from the court to transfer inmates.”
Earlier in the day, at the luncheon, Elfo told the business club that he would continue to do all he could to avoid telling city staff they couldn’t book someone into the jail, as he doesn’t want to return to the days of booking restrictions that were used by previous sheriffs.
“Some say that’s tempting, but we’ve got to deal with the safety of our community. I don’t think not holding a drunk driver overnight is a good policy; that’s a last resort,” Elfo said. “But I have a judge’s order that I can’t get people out of the jail, then the only thing I can do is say we’re not going to accept them on the front end.”
City legal staff wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald that the city is doing four things to clear jail space this week: 1) releasing low-risk offenders on the condition they return for future court dates on their own; 2) negotiating credit for time served so some inmates can immediately be released; 3) planning to transport inmates who have been convicted to Yakima; and 4) negotiating guilty pleas to make inmates eligible for transport to Yakima County to serve the balance of a lengthy sentence.
Of the six people the jail staff asked to be moved by Friday, five will be removed by that date, Ruffatto wrote, and the city was able to remove three other people, for a total of eight inmates.
The city is still working on transferring the last person on the list of six the jail staff identified.
“As of today, we believe that there are only 4 individuals (out of a total main jail inmate population of 239) who remain in the main jail on Bellingham only charges,” Ruffatto wrote. “These four individuals are all in pre-trial status, which, consistent with the City’s communications to the County on several occasions, cannot be transferred to Yakima County at this time.”
Issues with current buildings
Aside from dealing with crowding, Louws told the audience he plans to have an architectural firm examine both the main jail next to the downtown county courthouse and the minimum security work center on Division Street.
Both the main jail, which holds more people than it was originally designed for, and the 10-year-old minimum security work center have issues, Louws and Elfo said.
Is it wise to spend this money on our existing facilities, or do they want to jump-start the opportunity to re-engage the community on a new facility?
Jack Louws, Whatcom County Executive, speaking at Northwest Business Club
The main jail has structural problems, in part due to the removal of load-bearing elements when the basement was remodeled to house the Sheriff’s Office. The locking mechanisms on doors also are failing sporadically, and inmates have been able to pick their doors open, Elfo said.
On top of that, the minimum security work center’s electronic control system —the system that keeps cells locked or not —is on the verge of failing and is no longer supported by the vendor that made it, Elfo said.
“I’ve asked the Executive to look at getting a list of all the major repairs that need to be done in that jail that will be open until someone decides to replace it,” Elfo said in an interview.
The county staff will bring an estimate for the repairs to County Council, which could give them the opportunity to engage in “what will become a more serious conversation,” Louws told the club Wednesday.
“Is it wise to spend this money on our existing facilities, or do they want to jump-start the opportunity to re-engage the community on a new facility?” Louws asked.
Continuing talks between councils
Before the 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase) was rejected by 51.4 percent of voters on the November ballot, the six small cities in the county had agreed to use most of the tax to pay for a new jail of up to 521 beds.
Bellingham wanted changes to the agreement and had not signed the deal before the election.
Louws maintains that the city never outlined exactly what would need to change for them to get on board, but Bellingham City Council did send its requests to the County Council on Sept. 14.
Among those requests: extending the city’s current contract to keep inmates in the jail that expired on Dec. 31; having the city pay for 15 percent of the price tag to build a new jail, which city staff said should be more than the city’s fair share, as Bellingham inmates make up about 13 to 14 percent of the jail’s daily population; and continue to share the wealth from a 0.1 percent sales tax increase voters approved in 2004 to pay for a new jail.
Aside from wanting clarity from Bellingham, Louws said he has verbally asked the Whatcom County Council to reconfirm when and if they would like to bring a new jail proposal to voters.
Louws said he needs the council to say whether the already-purchased Ferndale property is still the right location for the new jail, whether the size of 521 beds is still OK, and whether or not they want to downsize elements of the project to save on cost.
“My personal opinion is we should take the sales tax revenue on that to build the right-size jail and do something right, but right now the Whatcom County Council is going to have to provide some leadership before we can move forward,” Louws said. “I do believe in the next two, three, four months that the conversation will come to the forefront.”