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Group planning new Whatcom County jail still has questions to answer

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, right, lays out a possible plan to divide and spend the revenue from a yet-to-be-approved sales tax that would be used to pay for a new Whatcom County jail. Louws spoke during a meeting of the Jail Stakeholder Workgroup on Friday.
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, right, lays out a possible plan to divide and spend the revenue from a yet-to-be-approved sales tax that would be used to pay for a new Whatcom County jail. Louws spoke during a meeting of the Jail Stakeholder Workgroup on Friday. swohlfeil@bhamherald.com

It’s virtually certain voters will be asked to raise the sales tax to pay for a new Whatcom County jail, but how expensive will that jail be, and how will everyone pay to run it?

While the group figuring out how to pay for a new jail has decided the county should ask for a 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase), chairwoman Kelli Carroll reminded her fellow work group members on Thursday that they had yet to decide on the other questions.

“When we look at our charge, we’ve been kicking two cans down the road the last five months,” Carroll said during a packed meeting in the mayor’s boardroom at Bellingham City Hall.

The group, created by Whatcom County Council last June, also is supposed to figure out the cost of the new facility and how to split the cost of operating it – with the goal of getting a measure on the November 2017 ballot. The group is meant to hammer out details that hadn’t been settled before a similar measure went before voters in 2015 and was rejected.

Details such as how much each agency uses the jail; what share of the 30-year bond payment should be covered by each user (likely based on how much space the user takes up on average); who sets the fees to use the jail; and what exactly goes into the costs to run the facility.

One proposal

Some of those details were discussed at Thursday’s meeting, as Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws presented estimates for how much revenue the sales tax might bring in, how that would be divvied up, and how much of the bond would be paid by each party.

Roughly, Louws said, the county could pay for about 76 percent of the 30-year bond costs, and the cities could split the remaining 24 percent cost between them based on their average use of the jail in 2014 and 2015. The county’s share was based on the average county use of the jail, plus the usage by state agencies and tribes over the same two years.

Louws’ figures assumed a $125 million cost for the new jail, with a bond payment of $7.7 million each year for 30 years. The group is not supposed to decide the size of the new jail, and Louws said his plan would be scalable based on what size is determined by the County Council.

After bond payments are made, over the 30-year life of the bond, there would be an estimated $346 million left over to go back to the users for operating or other public safety costs, Louws said.

The revenue could be split according to Washington state law, 60 percent to the county, and 40 percent to the cities, which then get their share based on their population. If the county also takes all of the revenue from an existing 0.1 percent sales tax voters passed in 2004 to pay for a new jail, that split would make everybody’s share about the same as their jail usage, Louws said.

Bellingham City Council member Pinky Vargas asked whether that yearly payment back to the city would even cover the current bill the city pays to use the jail.

“Right now that wouldn’t actually supplement what we’re spending. We’d still be spending more than the money coming in,” Vargas said.

“Yeah, we all are,” Louws replied.

Whatcom County Council member Todd Donovan asked for clarification on the figures, in thinking about how the measure might get put on the ballot, and said the majority of the revenue “is going for operations any way we slice it.”

“Let’s face it,” Louws replied, “there’s no sense spending the capital if we don’t have a way to operate it.”

More data, more alternatives

Although Louws and Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo presented some data Thursday about which courts used the jail by “bed days” – one bed day is the allocation for one day spent in jail by one inmate, and can be broken down into segments of a day – Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville asked for further clarification.

For example, one chart showed that Bellingham courts used 25,271 bed days in 2015, while Whatcom County courts used 95,371. But those numbers might overlap, because oftentimes – maybe 60 percent to 70 percent of the time, officials said – inmates who are held in the jail are there on charges from multiple courts. The same time Bellingham counts as one day might also count as a day served for Whatcom County.

Linville asked for the figures to be calculated without the overlap, to get a better idea of how much the space is actually being used.

Donovan later asked whether that would really change the percentages that much, or if it would basically even out.

“(Probably the biggest sticking point between the city and the county) is making sure there’s an accurate count, because we’re perfectly willing to pay our fair share,” Linville said in an interview Friday. “You can’t hash out the details if you don’t have the information.”

Jail Chief Wendy Jones said Thursday that the data management system used at the jail was not designed to pull out the data being asked for, so it has to be checked or calculated by hand, which will take time.

“People feel we’re trying to play a shell game, but we’re limited in our ability to get data back out of the system,” Jones said. “Like many records management systems, it was never designed to be what’s called a decision statistical system.”

The county also was asked to provide information on what roughly goes into the operating costs– for example, labor, food costs, etc.

During the comment period, members of the public questioned moving ahead with a new jail before looking at and implementing alternatives first. Some questioned the wisdom of crafting a payment plan that assumes outside factors will remain constant.

The group plans to meet next in early to mid-February.

Vacancy

Whatcom County Council is accepting applications for a citizen representative to fill a position on the work group. The term ends when the County Council adopts a jail ballot measure, “no later than November 2017.”

To qualify, applicants must be registered to vote and live outside of the Bellingham city limit.

Application instructions can be found at whatcomcounty.us/1584/How-to-Apply.

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