Group backs sales tax hike for new Whatcom County Jail

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws explains possible changes to a plan to build and operate a new jail during a meeting of the Jail Stakeholder Workgroup in Lynden, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016.
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws explains possible changes to a plan to build and operate a new jail during a meeting of the Jail Stakeholder Workgroup in Lynden, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016. swohlfeil@bhamherald.com

The group tasked with figuring out how to pay for a new Whatcom County Jail on Thursday officially ruled out using property tax, which means voters will be asked to support a sales tax increase for the project.

During a meeting in Lynden, the Jail Stakeholder Workgroup took property tax out of consideration in a 10-0 vote, with two abstentions and at least three members absent.

The group will focus on fine-tuning an agreement to build and operate a new jail, to be paid for with a 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase), which is the same funding mechanism voters rejected in 2015 by about 1,660 votes.

The plan is to get a ballot measure before voters by the November 2017 general election.

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws gave the group an overview of what could form the framework for the new agreement.

His draft, based on the agreement Whatcom County and the six small cities signed last year, could incorporate changes meant to find common ground with Bellingham, which didn’t sign onto the plan before the 2015 ballot measure.

Louws said the suggested changes came out of a meeting he had with Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis, and noted that the draft had not gone through legal or bond counsel and would need to be refined.

In an interview, Linville, who was not at the meeting Thursday, said the ideas talked about were new suggestions, and not necessarily items Bellingham could support.

“I would say there’s still a ways to go,” Linville said. “I’m looking forward to reviewing all this information so I can talk about it with the group.”

Possible major changes to the agreement included:

▪  Adding a “jail alternatives program” surcharge to the daily cost users pay to hold someone suspected of minor crimes at the jail

If the per diem cost is $100, and the surcharge is 2 percent, an additional $2 would be charged to the agency holding someone in the jail, and that money would go into an alternatives program fund. Cities or other agencies that hold people in the jail pay those fees, not the inmates.

Bellingham Council Chairwoman Pinky Vargas asked why the surcharge would apply only to misdemeanors and not to felony charges.

Louws said that between the felony and misdemeanor population, the county pays “for about 80 percent of all the costs associated with running the jail,” but the county and city of Bellingham have about an equal share of misdemeanants in the jail.

“The alternatives to incarceration are primarily going to be focused toward the misdemeanant end,” he said.

Keith Olson, representing the small cities as a small-city council member, said he would hate to see the small cities reject the plan “merely because of trying to add that into there.”

Korthuis said he didn’t think the small cities would reject it, because the number of people they book into the jail on suspicion of misdemeanors is a small portion, and the burden for those cities would be reduced if the alternative programs work for them.

▪  Ensuring each party makes equitable contributions for capital and operating expenses

Bellingham was asked in the 2015 agreement to pay 21 percent of the bond payment for the new jail, although the city determined it used more like 13 percent to 15 percent of jail space. Though Bellingham books a much higher percentage of people into jail, the county becomes responsible for all inmates charged with felonies.

Bellingham’s share was based on the county asking the cities to each pay their portion of 28 percent of the bill to build the jail.

To get closer to Bellingham’s suggestion, Louws said each city could pay its share of 24 percent of the construction cost, based on a three-year rolling average of that city’s jail use.

In exchange, the cities would run the risk of paying more if the project becomes more expensive than planned, which differs from the 2015 agreement that instead pegged each city with a set payment, not subject to project changes. But that also means the cities could participate in the rewards if the project comes in under budget, whereas the county would have pocketed any savings under the old agreement.

▪  Change the language to clearly identify project cost, including the cost of operations

▪  Change the language about ensuring continued access to the jail if the beds start to fill up

Other issues that still need to be discussed include the size of the new jail, which could be scalable with the way the agreement is written, the way the sales tax revenue is distributed, and more. Linville has proposed an “all-in” approach to the sales tax revenue.

The cost of the jail may also have gone up drastically from the 2015 estimate of $97 million to build a 521-bed facility, Louws said.

“Unfortunately from a cost perspective, things are scary,” Louws warned during the meeting.

With the expected rate of increase in construction costs (another roughly $12.4 million, according to the county’s jail consultant), plus about $7.5 million to fix the existing downtown jail to keep things safe until at least 2022, plus the cost to buy the site in Ferndale and pay for the design, the new total is expected to exceed $120 million, Louws said.

The group will next meet in mid- to late January.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil