Whatcom County Jail needs millions in repairs; sales tax could pay for new one

A Whatcom County maintenance services employee inspects a lock on Wednesday, July 8, at Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham, Wash.
A Whatcom County maintenance services employee inspects a lock on Wednesday, July 8, at Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham, Wash. eabell@bhamherald.com

Consultants told Whatcom County leaders this week they should work quickly to build a new jail or expect to pay at least $30 million to $40 million to maintain the current downtown jail over the next 20 years.

While a new jail that voters turned down last year was projected to cost about $100 million, consultants from design2LAST told Whatcom County Council members Tuesday, Oct. 11, that simply maintaining systems at the downtown jail would not deal with any of the staffing or overcrowding issues a new jail would eliminate.

“In a nutshell, our observation is you need to not wait to do a new jail,” Peter Rasmussen, who observed operations at the jail, told the council on Tuesday.

Two days later, the council’s Jail Stakeholder Workgroup, which has been tasked with figuring out how to pay for a new jail, appeared to agree they should figure out how to use sales tax to fund the project.

Jail condition

Whatcom County Jail, next to the downtown courthouse in Bellingham, was built in the early 1980s when the state decided to get into the jail business, Rasmussen told the council.

“The jail you ended up with is one of several jails of the same design,” he said. “It’s been said by others, and we agree, it was antiquated at the date it opened.”

The report from design2LAST shows that, among other things, the downtown jail needs work on the plumbing and lighting, lacks a smoke evacuation system that would work to pull smoke from the building in case of a fire, has doors with locks that malfunction, has a lack of privacy in the medical unit, is crowded beyond its designed capacity, and doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Engineers and specialists who joined in on the walk-through with design2LAST found about $10.4 million in “observed deficiencies” at the downtown jail.

They estimated about that much work would be needed just to “ease some problems” in the next five years while the county plans for and potentially builds a new jail. About $32 million could be expected as systems have to be replaced over the next 20 years if nothing changes.

They warned against thinking that the problems could be solved for $40 million, rather than building a more expensive new jail.

“We don’t take this lightly. When we go to school districts and say it’s better to build a new school as opposed to maintaining the old one, we take that seriously,” John Boatman of MENG Analysis told the council. “The point we continually make to stakeholders like yourself and your community is that if you do build a new jail, you start all your maintenance over for all your building systems at day one.”

Council Members Ken Mann and Todd Donovan both questioned how that argument would make sense to people looking at it as $32 million still being far less than the cost to build and operate a new jail.

Boatman and Rasmussen pointed out that fixing the existing jail wouldn’t solve the linear layout, which makes it difficult for staff to keep eyes on inmates, wouldn’t solve the privacy issues in the medical space, wouldn’t improve accessibility, nor would it solve issues with overcrowding.

Planning for a new jail

Last year, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws and other leaders around the county agreed to a proposal to build a new jail at LaBounty Road by asking voters to approve a 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase).

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville suggested perhaps using a property tax to build the facility and sales tax to operate it instead. Later city staff suggested splitting the pot of sales tax money differently – the city and county hadn’t reached an agreement by the time the measure went before voters.

The sales tax was rejected by 51.4 percent of voters in November 2015, with 1,661 votes separating the no and yes votes.

When the measure failed, the slate was wiped clean, Louws said during the work group’s meeting Thursday, Oct. 13.

However, it appears the agreement may still form the starting point of the work group’s ultimate recommendation, with most of the continuing work on how the sales tax revenue would be split between jurisdictions.

“Did I hear now what these guys said over here that sales tax is the method we’re going (with)?” Louws asked.

“The property tax is off,” Chairwoman Kelli Carroll said.

Bellingham City Council Member April Barker requested the group at least look at what could be raised through other means, including property tax, so the group could talk about why that might not be the best option, and eventually be able to explain their thinking to voters.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil