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Whatcom leaders: Put new jail, mental health center on ‘parallel track’

The booking area on the first floor of the Whatcom County Jail on Thursday, March 26, 2015 in Bellingham. County Executive Jack Louws wants to put a sales tax proposal on the fall ballot to cover some of the estimated $122.5 million cost of building a new jail. The current facility was built in 1983.
The booking area on the first floor of the Whatcom County Jail on Thursday, March 26, 2015 in Bellingham. County Executive Jack Louws wants to put a sales tax proposal on the fall ballot to cover some of the estimated $122.5 million cost of building a new jail. The current facility was built in 1983. The Bellingham Herald

In a move that could improve the prospects for a new jail facing increasing resistance from the Whatcom County Council, the county executive and the council chairman proposed a task force to find ways to significantly reduce the jail population.

The Criminal Justice Diversion Task Force would make recommendations on the creation of a crisis center for people with mental illness and addictions.

Pending council approval, the task force could include the county executive and sheriff, a council member, city representatives, and people from the courts and health-care fields. Executive Jack Louws has set aside $75,000 to fund the task force’s work this year.

A draft memo presented to the council on Tuesday, April 28, indicated the task force would report to the council in October about how to use $10 million that could be available to build the crisis center. The North Sound Mental Health Administration has said it would have the funds to operate the center once it is built.

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

Council member Ken Mann supports the task force proposal but remains skeptical about the jail plan.

“There is no question in my mind, with some of the innovative diversion programs we are seeing all over the country ... that we can reduce the number of people we are incarcerating,” Mann said Wednesday, April 29, in an interview. “We can save money in the long run and in the intermediate run.”

The new jail proposed for south Ferndale has been on the drawing board for a few years. Mann said the task force is a good idea that has come “about three years too late, unfortunately, to positively impact the current jail proposal.”

The new jail might not need 521 beds and cost an estimated $97 million if effective mental health and addiction treatment was part of the plan all along, Mann said.

“I am absolutely going to continue to advocate for a less expensive jail,” Mann said. “A $130 million project is a colossal expense, and it would be irresponsible for me not to reduce the burden on the taxpayers.”

The full project cost, including an adjoining sheriff’s headquarters, has been estimated at $122.5 million.

The main courthouse jail and a low-security work center on Division Street are overcrowded, with 403 inmates on average. The courthouse jail is in disrepair and poses safety risks for inmates and jail staff, officials have said.

Jail construction costs are rising faster than inflation, Louws has said, adding that a bond measure to cover $97 million of the cost must be put to voters as soon as possible. He has conceded that his original goal of making the August election isn’t going to happen. Now he’s aiming for the November election.

Mann said he would prefer waiting another year before asking county voters to increase the sales tax 0.2 percent to repay the jail construction bond.

“We need a year to let this new task force get to work and inform our jail planning decisions,” Mann said. “I would be happy to delay the vote for a year. I don’t know if I have three (other) votes on the council to do that.”

Louws and council Chairman Carl Weimer said the the task force was proposed to satisfy a skeptical council and what has been perceived as a disapproving public.

“There’s concern that there’s a big enough percentage of the public who would vote ‘no’ (on the bond) because we’re not paying enough attention to jail diversion,” Weimer said.

“It became clear ... that a parallel track needed to be laid to work on diversion/recidivism issues, alongside the track of building the new jail,” Louws wrote Wednesday, April 29, in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “Some council members articulated that the jail financing agreement (being negotiated with the cities) had lost sight of this.”

Five of the seven Whatcom cities have signed the agreement, Louws said. Ferndale is expected to vote on it on Monday, May 4. Bellingham’s vote on the jail agreement is expected no earlier than mid-May.

Council will meet as the county Board of Health at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, May 5, to continue the discussion of the diversion task force. The meeting will be held in council chambers inside the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave. Council could vote to create the task force, and start on the path to a new crisis center, at its May 12 meeting.

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