Whatcom council wants more cost info before deciding jail ‘LEED’ status

Whatcom County leaders are not ready to give up on building the new jail in Ferndale to a widely recognized green-building standard, despite the high-energy needs of the facility.

The County Council on Tuesday, Jan. 27, postponed for two weeks a decision on whether to exempt the jail from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED standard. The county committed in 2005 to constructing all public buildings to the LEED silver standard, “where feasible.”

The county’s jail consultant, DLR Group, provided a report to the council outlining what elements would need to be included in the jail to score LEED points. The LEED criteria include efficient heating and cooling, low water use, air quality and renewable energy.

Jail planners said they incorporated the LEED standards where they could, and they figured they had a score of 41 on the LEED scale — short of the 50 needed for silver.

“It’s a heavy, intensive facility that cannot pull back from temperature controls or use of power,” Erica Loynd of DLR Group told the council. While lights and heat can be turned off overnight in office buildings, jails are in use 24 hours a day. The laundry room at the Whatcom jail could be running 16 or even 24 hours a day, Loynd said.

The council, however, was not told how much more it would cost to bring the jail up to LEED silver, or how much money potentially would be saved through energy conservation over the jail’s lifetime.

“I need more information,” council member Ken Mann said. “I need more of a breakdown cost-wise ... over the life cycle of the building because if we do solar panels, up front it might cost more but in the long run it might save us money.”

DLR Group’s report says solar panels were not recommended because they would add to the cost of construction.

“I want to analyze the cost-benefit of LEED, or any rating system, over the life cycle of operation and (construction) costs,” Mann said. “If we just punt as soon as it becomes hard, it just doesn’t send a very good message.”

Council members Carl Weimer and Rud Browne also said the council needed more time and more information to decide what the jail’s green-building status will be. But not everyone on the council was behind LEED.

“I get that everybody wants to do the most environmental thing,” council member Barbara Brenner said. “I do feel like the most important thing is safety, I would believe, and I trust we’re going to make it as environmental as possible anyway.”

Council will be under pressure to make a decision on LEED at its next meeting, on Feb. 10 — either accepting higher construction costs or dropping the certification requirement for the jail. Council faces a deadline because it will decide no later than April whether to ask voters in August for money to pay for construction. Jail planners are considering a ballot measure that would increase sales tax in the county by 0.2 percent, or 20 cents on a $100 purchase.

The estimated construction cost for the 521-bed jail is about $82 million. 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.