Whatcom County likely to seek sales tax increase to pay for new jail

Next year could be make or break for a new Whatcom County Jail.

Construction of a 521-bed jail at the corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue can’t happen until Ferndale grants a permit and voters countywide approve a likely sales tax increase to cover the estimated $87 million price tag.

County officials hope to have the permit in hand by April 2015. Voters could be asked to approve a 0.2 percent sales tax hike in August.

County Executive Jack Louws, who is spearheading the planning for the new jail, said initial estimates show the tax increase would cover the cost of the jail. If the increase is approved, the tax on a $100 purchase would be 20 cents more.

A new sheriff’s headquarters built adjacent to the jail would cost about $13 million, with the money coming from existing funds, Louws said.

The county will hire consultants for $75,000 “to ensure the bond proposal we recommend to council actually is indeed feasible,” Louws said. “All indications are that it’s going to work.”

Council on Tuesday, Sept. 30, will consider a new $825,887 contract with jail consultant DLR Group. The firm helped conduct environmental studies on the 39-acre jail site before the county purchased it in November 2013 for $6.1 million. In the next planning phase, DLR Group would refine the jail’s design to prepare the project for review by Ferndale officials. Louws said he also would ask the firm to “try to tighten the budget estimates” to save money where possible.

To pass muster with Ferndale, the jail design must meet new standards established in 2013 for fencing, lighting and the jail’s distance from residential properties.

If Ferndale approves, the design and a more detailed cost estimate would be brought to county voters to inform their decision on the measure, which would require at least 50 percent approval.

If the county stays on schedule, construction would begin in early 2017. Inmates would move into the new jail in early 2019.

The current jail at the courthouse and the work center on Division Street have a combined capacity of 390 inmates, which is inadequate for current demand. Some offenders are released rather than being jailed after arrest. People being held on lesser charges often are released early because of space constraints.

The existing jail was not well constructed and presents safety and security risks to inmates and jail deputies, council members have said.

DLR Group will update the council on jail planning shortly after 11 a.m. Tuesday at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.

The requirement for voter approval was corrected Monday, Sept. 29, 2014.