Mayor to Whatcom County: Take money for new jail; I want deal in return

A cell at the Whatcom County Jail as seen on March 26, 2015, in Bellingham.
A cell at the Whatcom County Jail as seen on March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. Bellingham Herald file

Voters who rejected a plan last year to pay for a new Whatcom County jail by increasing local sales taxes could be asked to approve the same thing in 2017, but with a shift in who collects the funds generated.

One proposal would have all the money raised go to Whatcom County to build and operate a new facility. Another proposal, based on last year’s pitch, would figure out how to share some of the revenue with the cities while expecting they share building and operating costs.

The proposed jail sales tax measure on the 2015 ballot failed by about 1,660 votes, and city and county leaders hope they can reconcile their differences and get a successful ballot measure next year.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville made her latest offer for how to allocate the money in October, and it was discussed at a meeting Thursday with the work group tasked with figuring out how to pay for a new jail.

The pitch? Ask voters to raise the sales tax by 0.2 percent (20 cents per $100 purchase), as proposed last year. That would bring the total public safety sales tax in the county to 0.3 percent because voters approved an ongoing 0.1 percent tax in 2004.

Then, let the county have it all.

In return, the all-in proposal Linville sent to Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws in late October suggests that the county would pay for all jail costs, and the cities would not be required to pay fees to book people into the jail, or to keep them there.

Currently, agencies using the jail are required to pay a $100 fee to book someone into the facility, and then if that person is required to stay there (and not just released), the daily fee is $98, which can be billed by eight-hour segments if they don’t stay a full day.

If someone is booked on charges from multiple jurisdictions, the agencies evenly split the daily cost to keep that inmate there.

Bellingham mayor all-in; small cities and county not convinced

Louws immediately voiced his skepticism about the all-in proposal at the Thursday meeting.

For starters, under the agreement Whatcom County proposed last year, Bellingham and the small cities would have received a share of the sales tax revenue based on population.

“That was anticipated the cities would get $100 million over the life of it,” Louws told the work group about the roughly 30-year period it would take to repay the bonds. “Now this contemplates the whole $100 million goes to the county.”

I don’t know if it incentivizes the cities to keep people out of jail from a financial standpoint.

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, on an all-in proposal in which cities would not pay daily fees to keep people in a new jail

Secondly, Louws wondered if not having fees to put inmates in the jail would take away any incentive for cities to curtail their use of the jail.

“I don’t know if it incentivizes the cities to keep people out of jail from a financial standpoint, along with the moral obligation we have to do it,” Louws said.

If we are in a scenario where we’re not paying bed fees, we would want to remain as lean as possible to keep that scenario where we don’t pay.

Bellingham Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich, on the all-in proposal

Bellingham Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich, who has helped negotiate jail issues for the last few years with Linville and City Attorney Peter Ruffatto, countered later in the meeting that the cities wouldn’t want to fill up the jail right away.

“If we are in a scenario where we’re not paying bed fees, we would want to remain as lean as possible to keep that scenario where we don’t pay,” Heinrich said. “We don’t want to be in a situation where we have to pay for booking or per diems.”

On a similar note, although the cities might see their share of $100 million over 30 years, the cost to keep inmates in the jail has gone up faster than that, with an increased jail cost of perhaps 20 percent in the last year alone, Heinrich said.

Mike Martin, Lynden city administrator who attended the meeting, said the all-in proposal was problematic for the small cities, which use a small percentage of the jail.

“It doesn’t really get to the issue of proportional treatment and use of the jail,” Martin said.

Next steps

The jail planning group plans to hear two main proposals at its meeting in December.

The first is Bellingham’s all-in proposal, in more detail.

The second will come from the county as a refined version of the 2015 proposal, which was agreed to at the time by all parties except Bellingham.

In an interview, Louws said he will try to look at “what modifications we are able to incorporate into it based on what the county or I as executive would be willing to change and based on the comments Bellingham sent to us last year. Basically, modify it to what we believe would be an appropriate approach, where we give a little here, take a little there.”

While a work group figures out how to pay for a new jail, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws is working on a stopgap plan to repair the existing downtown jail, likely to the tune of $6 million to $8 million.

One thing the work group is not supposed to deal with is the size of the proposed jail. The 2015 proposal was for a 521-bed facility, but some who opposed the new jail plan thought that was too large.

Also not discussed was any other mechanism to pay for a new facility.

At the Thursday meeting, Bellingham City Councilwoman April Barker, who was in the small audience, asked if the work group members could put together a rationale explaining why they thought sales tax was the best way to pay for the new jail.

“I still have reservations as to why we’re doing that,” Barker said.

Lisa McShane, a political consultant who works with local Democrats, was also at the meeting, and asked whether only considering sales tax, instead of property tax, was wise.

“I’m surprised and disappointed to see just sales tax listed as the remaining options,” McShane told the work group. “The police guild statement was that the public safety sales tax locked up 100 percent of sales tax capacity for 30 years. That was a problem, and that was a problem for the public who voted against it, too.”

Expensive stopgap coming soon

In the meantime, Louws is also working on stopgap fixes to the downtown jail as proposed by consultant design2LAST.

Those repairs, which are likely to go before the Whatcom County Council for approval in the first part of 2017, could be in the neighborhood of $6 million to $8 million, which is a pared-back proposal from the consultant’s estimated $10.4 million in immediately needed repairs.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil