No room for treatment center in Whatcom jail funding package

Whatcom County officials agree a jail is no place to care for people who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol. With a new jail on the drawing board, and with a construction bond likely to appear on the countywide ballot this year, County Council members asked whether improved treatment services could be added to the jail plan.

“Mental health services and chemical dependency services I think are at a crisis point in Whatcom County and have a huge impact on our law enforcement, and on our jail,” said Ken Mann. He has taken the lead among council members who see the new jail — and the additional sales tax revenue that would come from the bond measure — as an opportunity to improve treatment while reducing incarceration rates.

About one out of five people booked into the county jail have “a serious and persistent mental illness,” said Anne Deacon, the county human services manager. About nine out of 10 have “current or very recent” drug or alcohol use, Deacon said.

At a council meeting, Sheriff Bill Elfo said Tuesday, March 31, that all people booked into jail are accused of crimes. Deputies aren’t arresting people who are mentally ill just to take them off the streets.

Whether they have committed a crime or not, some people shouldn’t be in the jail, Mann said. He mentioned a recent case of a woman with mental illness who threatened her children.

“That’s a crime that she’s committing, but taking her to jail is probably not the best place for her,” Mann said. “We don’t want our deputies and our jail staff having to work with that. I want doctors working with that and getting her better right away.”

The solution that has gained the most traction among county officials is a new or expanded crisis center with beds for people with either mental illness or addictions (or both, as is often the case). The county has $3 million set aside for such a center, an amount that could be close to half the total construction budget. The five-county North Sound Mental Health Administration is getting more money from Medicaid, and officials at North Sound say they could fund the ongoing operation of a new center.

The county would need to come up with the money to build the center, on top of the $3 million already available. Council members on Tuesday, March 31, asked county Executive Jack Louws why a few million dollars weren’t set aside for a crisis center from the proposed jail bond, now estimated at $104 million.

The bond needs the support of all seven cities in the county, Louws said, and the cities are insisting they keep some of the new sales tax revenue to help pay their jail bed fees.

“The proposal just doesn’t provide the money to be able to also build what could be a $6 million to $8 million facility outside of (the jail),” Louws told council.

The executive, a former Lynden mayor, said he sympathized with the cities’ position.

“They need a bit of that (sales tax) to be able to do their business. It’s a financial reality,” Louws said.

Another source of construction money for a crisis center could be proceeds from the sale of the work center for low-risk inmates on Division Street. The county has verbally committed to the city that it would sell that building and return it to the tax rolls once the new jail is built, but the council hasn’t made a final decision on that.

Another option, Louws said, would be to expand the existing 13-bed triage center already in the work center building, after the inmates are moved to the new jail in Ferndale.

The 521-bed Ferndale facility would relieve overcrowding at the main courthouse jail and the work center, which hold 403 inmates on average.

The new jail also would be an improvement over current conditions for people with mental-health or substance-abuse problems, officials said.

Plans for the new jail include more space for medical and psychological services, including private interview rooms. In the existing jail, staff try to assess the mental-health status of inmates by talking to them through door hatches in the presence of other inmates, Deacon said.

“We will be able to get people to the services they need more easily ... and definitely in a more timely fashion,” she said.

Council will get an update from Louws on April 14 about the agreements being negotiated with the cities for the sales tax revenue. Louws will ask council on April 28 to consider putting the bond on the Aug. 4 ballot.