Whatcom County voters twice rejected funding a new jail, and now they’re saying why

Whatcom County to make repairs to aging jail

Whatcom County officials will spend some $16 million over the next few years to repair the current County Jail, after two failed attempts to raise taxes for a new multi-use corrections facility that they say is desperately needed.
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Whatcom County officials will spend some $16 million over the next few years to repair the current County Jail, after two failed attempts to raise taxes for a new multi-use corrections facility that they say is desperately needed.

A jail proposal that failed twice at the ballot was too expensive, had too few provisions for mental health treatment and diversion programs, and was planned too far from Bellingham, Whatcom County council members were told in a special presentation this week.

Information in the presentation came from a public “listening tour” held by the council’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee at seven sites around the county last spring.

Holly O’Neil of Crossroads Consulting, who moderated the seven sessions and cataloged verbal and written comments, said voters overwhelming felt that the council had its priorities wrong.

“How many times do we have to say no before you get it?” O’Neil said, quoting one person who commented. “If you want a tax to raise money for drug and alcohol and mental health treatment, I’ll be out there every day holding a sign — vote yes. That was one illustrative quote.”

For several years, Whatcom County has been seeking to replace the downtown jail, which opened in 1984 and has a cap of 212 inmates, with a 480-bed criminal justice facility in a complex of buildings in Ferndale.

Measures that would add two-tenths of one percent to the county sales tax failed at the ballot in 2015 and 2017.

Voters approved a one-tenth of one percent tax in 2004.

That money built a temporary 150-bed work center, paid for some repairs at the downtown jail, and some funds went to the county’s cities to offset their jail costs.

jail yes
Maximum security cell block at the Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Meanwhile, more than $12 million is earmarked for repairs at the jail over the next six years, even as officials believe that a new facility must be built.

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O’Neil said that some 115 people attended the sessions, not counting elected officials, and about three dozen people attended two or more events.

She said those who attended were overwhelming older and white.

“I think that findings are pretty robust, but if you wanted to get more input from younger people, people of color, that would be another step,” O’Neil said.

Council members Barry Buchanan, Tyler Byrd and Satpal Sidhu are on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee but council members Barbara Brenner, Rud Browne and Todd Donovan also attended the presentation.

Alternatives sought

O’Neil said county residents expressed broad concern for injustices and inadequacies inherent in the current criminal justice system.

People think that incarceration preys on the poor and people of color and it’s how we handle our homelessness problem, she said.

“They really don’t want the jail to be a place where we’re holding people with mental health issues, addiction, nonviolent drug users, people who can’t afford to pay their fines, people who are pre-trial and can’t afford to pay bail, homeless, homeless youth and older women who are nonviolent offenders,” O’Neil said.

She said the council should increase the consistency and transparency of public communications as it moves forward with plans for a new jail and other criminal justice programs.

“So what do people want?” she said. “We need to make every effort to put (offenders) other places first, because it’s cost-effective and it preserves family structures and it’s the kind of humane treatment toward which we aspire.”

A full report will be posted on the county’s website, along with video of the seven meetings.

Byrd said he appreciated the dialogue that the sessions generated, but that he hoped to get greater turnout.

“A lot of good things came out of what we did,” Byrd said. “This was the first time as a council that people, we’d gone out and asked for input and had that dynamic back and forth as part of it, and I think that people really valued that.”

Starting solutions

He said he hopes the council will start working quickly on the report’s recommendations.

“I do feel like time is of the essence,” Byrd said. “The jail is falling apart. There are safety issues for inmates, there are safety issues for officers, and even if you don’t consider the safety issues and the jail, you’re still looking at people who are in jail and pretrial and maybe we should be considering other options, and that’s an issue that has a lot of relevance and importance right now as well.“

He suggested moving forward with a plan to offer more non-violent inmates awaiting trial a chance to participate in a home-monitoring program.

“I think that instead of waiting for the grand plan to come together and for the task force to say here’s everything that we want and us then going out and doing everything at the exact same time , I think there’s a lot of merit for us to start looking at small steps and small pieces that we can do now and start building momentum that we can then show our community and then get their buy-in,” he said.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty