Final vote possible on Whatcom County jail ballot measure

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 voters likely will get their second chance in two years to consider raising the sales tax to fund the building of a new jail and related criminal justice programs.

In a 4-3 vote Tuesday night, County Council members agreed to a measure that will ask voters in November for an extra two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax “for public safety purposes, including the costs associated with financing, construction, maintenance, and operation of jail facilities, and incarceration prevention programs, including medical and behavioral health facilities and programs.” Council members Ken Mann, Todd Donovan and Barry Buchanan were opposed.

A hearing on the proposed ballot measure is planned for the council’s next regular meeting on July 11, and a final vote could be taken then. A panel of residents and government officials have been discussing such a proposal for nearly a year.

Action on the ballot measure is required before Aug. 1 in order to make the Nov. 7 ballot.

At a committee meeting Tuesday afternoon in advance of their regular evening session, council members discussed several concerns about the jail plan that had been expressed in a formal letter from the Bellingham City Council. Six of the county’s seven cities have approved the Jail Facility Financing Use Agreement for the project, which spells out each city’s financial commitment.

Bellingham is the lone holdout, and its council cites five key issues they’d like addressed. Tuesday’s ballot measure included language about one issue – that some funds from the tax would be directed to medical and behavioral health facilities and programs.

A similar jail tax measure narrowly failed in 2015, without the support of the Bellingham City Council.

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

Jail Ballot 1
An inmate writes as others nap during the day in the women's area of Whatcom County Jail, July 2, 2015. Evan Abell eabell@bellinghamherald.com

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.

Lilliquist said he felt more optimistic about the ballot measure after language about mental health programs was added. He said the Bellingham City Council would discuss the issue July 10, at its next regular meeting.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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