Whatcom jail bond won’t make August ballot

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws said he has dropped his push to get a $97 million sales-tax bond for a new county jail on the August primary ballot.

Louws had been encouraging the County Council to put the proposed 0.2 percent sales tax increase on the Aug. 4 ballot, but council members won’t be able to make the May 8 deadline.

Louws has said the earlier the bond is approved, the sooner jail construction could begin — and the lower the cost would be, because construction costs are rising faster than inflation.

“For every month of delay we have, it costs about $480,000,” he has said. “This window of opportunity to use the sales tax to pay for the project is closing on us fast.”

Also, Louws has said running the measure in August gives the county the opportunity to put it back on the ballot quickly, in November, if it fails.

Jail-use agreements with all seven cities in the county must be in place before the County Council can put the bond measure on the ballot. That won’t happen before May 8, Louws said.

The executive has been spearheading negotiations with the cities over how to divide up the additional sales tax that would come into city coffers. County officials want as much of it as they can get to pay back the jail bond, which would cover the cost of jail construction. The cities, meanwhile, want to keep some of the tax revenue to cover fees the county charges for jailing people who are arrested by city police.

Some of the cities, most notably Bellingham, have not yet signed the agreement with the county.

Another pressure has been working against the August election. County Council members have asked the executive to allow time to come up with ways to improve the county’s mental health services. That would reduce incarceration rates for people with mental illness who would be better served in a treatment environment — a goal shared by the council and the county administration.

“Due to the timing issues, and an expressed concern of some Whatcom council members, the August ballot measure will not happen,” Louws said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “Therefore, we are now working to get this on the November general election ballot.”

The county’s biggest city partner by far on the jail project is Bellingham, where officials aren’t saying how quickly they might reach an agreement with the county.

The new jail will be on the Bellingham City Council agenda for May 4, but the council will not take a vote at that meeting, said Brian Heinrich, Bellingham’s deputy administrator.

“My sense is that the May 4 discussion will help inform how close we are to an agreement,” he said Friday, April 24.

Louws will give the County Council an update on the jail project and mental health treatment options at 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 28, at the County Courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.