Whatcom votes on sales tax ballot measure for new jail

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.

Voters will get their second chance in two years to consider raising the Whatcom County sales tax to fund construction of a new jail and related criminal justice programs, including mental health treatment and methods to reduce incarceration.

In a 4-3 vote Tuesday night, County Council members agreed to place on the fall ballot a measure that will ask voters 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.

Not all council members said they agreed with the entire plan, but a majority felt the need for a new jail was critical, and waiting any longer would only increase the cost and complicate the project.

“This issue is not only about incarceration. This issue is about the justice system,” said Council member Satpal Sidhu. “But I think this (measure) is something I can live with.”

Mann, however, was still unconvinced.

This issue is not only about incarceration. This issue is about the justice system.

Council member Satpal Sidhu

It’s going to be easier than the last one to defeat.

Council member Todd Donovan

“Our criminal justice system as a nation is flawed,” Mann said. “We spend too much money, we lock up too many people and we get poor outcomes. In what other endeavor would we continue to do that? To commit to another $100 million of concrete and steel makes no sense to me. I think our money would be much better spent reducing incarceration and repairing our dilapidated jail.”

He called it “irresponsible” to seek another ballot measure.

“I think we can do better than this,” Mann said.

Donovan said he thinks a new jail is necessary but he is hesitant to endorse the current plan.

“There were problems with this proposal two years ago, and I think we fixed them,” Donovan said, adding he still had reservations about the size, cost and location.

He predicted that voters again would reject the measure.

“My biggest worry is that the proposal that we’re putting on the ballot is going to look so much like the last one, it’s going to be easier than the last one to defeat,” he said.

Council member Carl Weimer said he was taking a “leap of faith” in voting to place the tax measure on the ballot.

0712 JailBallot
Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

In a separate vote Tuesday, the County Council unanimously approved the Jail Facility Financing Use Agreement for the project, which spells out the financial commitment of each of the county’s seven cities – all seven cities have approved the JFFUA.

A second vote is required on the ballot ordinance at the council’s July 25 meeting. But votes rarely change on the “second reading” of a city or county ordinance.

Council members discussed the ballot proposal during a Tuesday night hearing at the council’s regular session – residents and government officials addressed the issue during an open comment section.

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, and its size of about 480 beds. But he indicated a majority of the Bellingham City Council now supports the financing agreement.

A panel of residents and government officials have been discussing the proposal for nearly a year. Final action on the ballot measure is required before Aug. 1 in order to make state requirements for the Nov. 7 ballot.

A high security inmate paces around the recreation area of Whatcom County Jail during his weekly hour for recreation on Thursday, July 2, 2015 in Bellingham. Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

A similar jail tax measure narrowly failed in 2015 – by fewer than 2,000 votes countywide – without the support of the Bellingham City Council.

Officials are planning for a criminal justice facility in a complex of buildings located near Slater Road and Interstate 5 in Ferndale. Its cost could surpass $110 million.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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