Bellingham has concerns about the county’s new jail plan, but 6 cities have signed off on it

Debate continues on new Whatcom County jail

Whatcom County officials are considering again whether to ask voters to approve money to build a new, larger jail.
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Whatcom County officials are considering again whether to ask voters to approve money to build a new, larger jail.

Whatcom County Council members took another step Tuesday toward approving language for a proposed November ballot measure to fund a new jail.

At a committee meeting in advance of Tuesday night’s regular session, council members discussed a letter from the Bellingham City Council that cites several concerns that City Council members have regarding the Jail Facility Financing Use Agreement, which was signed by six of the county’s seven cities. The JFFUA spells out each city’s financial commitment to the project.

Bellingham is the lone holdout, and its council cites five key issues they’d like addressed before they support the County Council’s ballot measure aimed at funding a new jail. A panel of local residents and government officials have been discussing such a proposal for nearly a year, and the County Council faces an Aug. 1 deadline for getting a proposal on the ballot.

County voters narrowly rejected a jail funding proposal in 2015.

Officials are still considering a jail location near Slater Road and Interstate 5 in Ferndale. Its cost could surpass $100 million.

Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist told the County Council on Tuesday that concerns remain about the proposed jail location in Ferndale, away from the County Courthouse in Bellingham; its size of about 480 beds; the county’s financial commitment to jail alternatives such as home monitoring and mental health treatment; the need for a local booking and holding facility; and local housing of pretrial inmates.

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Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, council members voted to add ballot language to guarantee funding for jail alternatives, such as mental health treatment and counseling.

“My highest goal is a safer community, where we treat everyone well and address the root causes of incarceration,” Lilliquist said after the meeting. “This is an important step in that direction, and that makes me feel better.”

In its letter, the Bellingham council said the city remains committed to “a unified jail facility,” despite its concerns.

“While I negotiated with the county executive on a jail use agreement that moved the conversation into the direction council wanted to go, I understand their concerns for further information," Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said in a news release. “A negotiation like this involves a lot of compromise, and I believe the council's questions are legitimate. If the county is open to making changes to the agreement, I believe the Bellingham City Council would be open to working with them to make sure the needs of both the City and the County are met.”

Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis and Ferndale Mayor Jon Mutchler – who said they spoke for the mayors of Nooksack, Everson, Sumas and Blaine – agreed that funding for mental health treatment and other issues such as vocational and educational training for prisoners is important. But, citing the Aug. 1 deadline, they urged the County Council not to modify the JFFUA in a way that would require the cities to vote on its wording again.

“This (JFFUA) agreement is compromising for many, including me,” Korthuis said. “Work still needs to be done.”

But it’s “desperately needed,” Korthuis said.

A new jail is needed because the current jail is “outdated and structurally deficient,” according to information from a Jail Planning Task Force that has been meeting for about a year. The current jail consists of the downtown Bellingham lockup, built in 1984 to hold 148 people, and a temporary minimum security work center built in 2006 in Bellingham’s Irongate industrial area for 150 detainees.

As of Monday, the two facilities held 326 people, said Sheriff Bill Elfo.

“The facility is continuing to deteriorate,” Elfo said.

County Council member Barbara Brenner said the Bellingham council’s reluctance was discouraging.

“I’m kind of disappointed,” she said. “ I feel like we have made incredible commitments already.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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