Both City of Bellingham and Whatcom County officials will discuss criminal justice issues next week in the wake of a failed November ballot measure to fund a new jail.
Whatcom County Council members will hear a presentation of the final Phase III report of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force during a Special Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
Earlier in November, County Council members unanimously approved an additional $543,000 for a contract with design2 LAST Inc. of Edmonds, a firm that will be making repairs to the current jail’s fire sprinkler system, door locks and kitchen.
In a public presentation Tuesday, design2 LAST discussed the scheduled improvements – projects that were planned within the next five years no matter the outcome of the jail vote. A total of $913,287 has been approved for immediate repairs.
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Meanwhile, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville wants to establish a “working group” of local public officials to discuss jail-related topics.
“I’m concerned that given the current situation at the Whatcom County facility, that the City of Bellingham, and other jurisdictions including all the Whatcom County cities, Lummi Nation, and the Nooksack Indian Tribe will be limited in the use of the facility,” Linville wrote in a memo to the Bellingham City Council.
Linville’s request is scheduled for consideration Monday afternoon when the City Council’s Justice Committee meets. Also scheduled is a discussion of proposed “guiding principles” for justice and justice-related systems, and how criminal justice and public safety issues will affect the city budget.
On Nov. 7, Whatcom County voters rejected – for the second time in two years – a measure asking for a two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax to fund a new jail. The measure failed 58.6 percent to 41.4 percent, even though it had the support of all seven cities and many civic leaders countywide.
A nearly identical proposal narrowly failed in November 2015 – 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent – and without the support of the Bellingham City Council.
Plans called for a 480-bed criminal justice facility in a complex of buildings located near Slater Road and Interstate 5 in Ferndale. It was expected to cost about $110 million.
Supporters of the tax feared overcrowding, safety and other issues at the main jail that opened in 1984 and now has a cap of 212 inmates. It’s been called a fire and earthquake hazard, in addition to a health hazard, and Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, whose department is in charge of jail operations, has called the current facility “inhumane.”
Foes criticized the new jail proposal’s size, cost, and its location away from the Whatcom County seat in Bellingham where courts, county prosecutors and sheriff’s officials have offices. Other opponents want additional alternatives to incarceration, such as mental health treatment, programs addressing homelessness and drug addiction, and more home detention for low-risk offenders.
At Tuesday’s public meeting, design2 LAST officials said fire sprinklers, locking mechanisms, lighting and kitchen equipment were among the most critical and easily fixed issues at the jail. Many parts of the jail have reached the end of their useful life or don’t meet current building codes, officials said.
Other critical projects, such as meeting current seismic standards and a ventilation system for smoke in case of a fire, will require major structural repairs, said Lauri Strauss, president and CEO of design2 LAST.
“The things that we saw, you’re not going to be able to fix. You still need a new jail,” Strauss said.
She said even the planned repairs will require major logistical planning.
“It’s going to be a major issue dealing with an occupied jail facility,” she said.
Elfo said he feared that more inmates will be sent to Yakima County Jail under an agreement that’s been in effect for more than a year. But he doesn’t think shipping inmates to Yakima is a viable long-term solution.
“We have big decisions ahead of us,” said County Executive Jack Louws. “Politically, the council will have to make a decision. The next big decision points will be expensive.”
Bellingham City Council: Discussion of a draft resolution of guiding principles for justice and justice-related systems, a request to convene jail stakeholders, and criminal justice and public safety effects on the city budget will be discussed during a meeting of the council’s Justice Committee at 1 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4, in City Council Chambers, 210 Lottie St.
Whatcom County Council: Special presentation of the final Phase III report of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force during a Special Committee of the Whole meeting at 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 5, in Council Chambers, 311 Grand Ave.