Whatcom County to make repairs to aging jail
More than $12 million is earmarked for repairs at the Whatcom County Jail over the next six years, even as officials believe that a new jail must be built despite voters' reluctance to tax themselves for one.
County Council members approved the first of the repair funds late last year, after voters rejected a sales tax for the second time in two years, said County Executive Jack Louws.
But Louws and other county officials — along with a consulting firm hired to assess the jail for remodeling — said the 35-year-old building still fails to meet the needs of a modern correctional system, even with repair projects that are slated to start with bids this summer.
"The building is in need of major renovations if we're going to continue to use it," said Sheriff Bill Elfo, whose office supervises jail operations.
In addition, Louws said another $4 million will be needed over the next six years for personnel and other costs related to moving and managing inmates during the repair work.
"The projects that we're undertaking now are the most serious life-safety issues that have the most likelihood of success in an occupied facility," Louws said.
"Even after spending all this money, we'll still need a new jail," he said. "I agree with our consultants. We have no other option at this particular time."
Repairs slated over the next several years were ranked by importance in a study of the jail, and some of the recommended repairs cannot be completed because of cost or logistics involved.
Priorities include adding a new sprinkler system, replacing doors and locks that often don't work properly, and replacing kitchen equipment that's past its useful life.
Repairs that can't be done include a seismic retrofit for mechanical and electrical equipment on the roof, adding a smoke-exhaust system to be used in case of fire, and installing extra emergency lighting that would require a new generator and is considered too expensive.
Some of those repairs would require removal of the roof, a project that officials said is impossible with inmates inside the jail.
None of the repairs will change the fact that a new jail is badly needed, said Elfo, Louws and others.
"We're pouring a lot of good money into that facility and we're not solving the problem," Elfo said.
Meanwhile, a 40-acre piece of land lies vacant on LaBounty Road in Ferndale, waiting for a new jail that might never be built.
That site was bought in 2013 for $6.1 million.
"Sale of the land would be a (County) Council decision," Louws said.
Such a large plot of land was sought because plans favored a single-story structure rather than a tall building with a smaller footprint. A single-story jail could be expanded and upgraded more easily if it had to last for 50 years, Elfo said.
County officials are holding onto the site, along with a hope that funding for a jail will be found.
Plans for the new jail 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, and include facilities for felons, minimum-security inmates, and mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. It also would have houses the Sheriff's Office, which now is in the basement of the jail building downtown.
Supporters of the tax feared overcrowding, safety and other issues at the current jail. It's been called a fire and earthquake hazard, in addition to a health hazard, and Elfo 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 are located. Other opponents wanted additional alternatives to incarceration, more mental health treatment, programs addressing homelessness and drug addiction, and more home detention for low-risk offenders.
In November 2017, Whatcom County voters rejected a two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax by a margin of 58.6 percent to 41.4 percent, even though it had the support of all seven cities in the county and many civic leaders countywide.
A nearly identical proposal failed 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent in November 2015, without the support of the Bellingham City Council.
Money from the 2015 tax would have been in addition to a 0.1 percent sales tax that 62 percent of county voters approved in 2004, and is still being collected. That money helped build the minimum-security Interim Work Center in the Irongate area of Bellingham.
But funding fell short of what was needed for a permanent jail complex for several reasons, The Bellingham Herald reported in 2015.
Some of the money built the work center, some went to repairs at the main jail, and some went to the county's cities to offset their jail costs.
In addition, the 2004 plan underestimated a new jail's cost and the 2007 recession slashed the funds it collected.
A cap of 212 inmates has been set for the main County Jail, and the average daily population in 2017 was at 208 inmates, said Chief Corrections Deputy Wendy Jones.
Average daily population in 2017 for the Interim Work Center was 104 inmates, and that building has a cap of 150 inmates.
A small number of offenders go to the Crisis Triage Center or to Whatcom Community Detox, both located near the work center, with a total of 13 beds — five for mental health and eight for detox.
Expansion of those programs to 32 total beds is planned with $9.5 million in state funds, county officials said.
To keep the local jail population down, some inmates from Bellingham and Lummi Nation currently are housed at Yakima County Department Corrections, mostly offenders who are serving sentences and don't require frequent transport for court appearances, Jones said.
"We need the jail," Elfo said. "The size and design is up to the council. At this point, we just need a facility, whether it's in Bellingham or in Ferndale."
Meanwhile, members of the Whatcom County Council's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee are conducting a "listening tour" of public sessions to hear what residents think about the size, location and services a new jail should provide — and how it should be funded.
Council members are using input from the listening tour and will work with the council's Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force to develop a "needs assessment" aimed at building a new jail.
Speakers at four sessions echo the issues that dominated debate surrounding the 2015 and 2017 jail tax measures: They want more focus on jail alternatives such as work programs and home monitoring; bail reform so poor people aren't jailed simply because they can't pay; more mental health and substance-abuse treatment; job training for offenders; and a focus on employment and homelessness, which many speakers said contributes to low-level crime.
"We'll see — after these listening sessions — we'll see what direction the County Council can provide," Louws said.
Many speakers also said they want a jail to stay in Bellingham, the Whatcom County seat, and some prefer funding through a property tax instead of a sales tax.
"It seems burdensome for families, attorneys, health-care providers to have to travel out there" to Ferndale, said Paul Campbell at a May 1 session in Bellingham. "Can you imagine what the traffic density is going to be on I-5 by then?"
Bobby Burr of Bellingham urged the council to stop studying the issue and take action.
"You are guilty of analysis paralysis and you need to do something," Burr said.
County Councilman Satpal Sidhu, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee who's been attending the listening sessions, said during an April session at the Lynden Library that the current jail simply can't be fixed.
"The need is not going to go away," Sidhu said. "Every time I vote money for the current jail improvements, I feel bad. It's good money being thrown after bad money."
At the April 3 session in Deming, Whatcom County resident Mike Kaufman said that voters know they have the power to influence a decision.
"Demonstrate to me as the voter that you've got something different in mind than another jail tax," Kaufman said. "I just don't see that flying in any way, shape, or form at this point — until you give us a reason to believe."