Whatcom Council delays vote on new jail

Approval of a new jail won’t come until the Whatcom County Council gets more assurances that mental health and addiction treatment will improve, council members told the county executive Tuesday, May 5.

Council decided to postpone votes on two key jail measures that had been tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, May 12. Council must approve a jail-use agreement with the county’s seven cities that will determine how revenue is shared from a sales-tax hike that would pay for jail construction. Also, council is expected to vote on whether to put the sales-tax measure on the November ballot.

Voters likely will be asked to approve a $97 million bond for jail construction, with a 0.2 percent sales-tax increase countywide to repay the bond. The increase amounts to an additional 20-cent tax on a $100 purchase.

Five of the seven cities have approved the jail-use agreement; Ferndale and Bellingham are the two holdouts. The Bellingham City Council decided Monday, May 4, to submit 22 questions on jail financing for county Executive Jack Louws to answer.

City Council and staff were unclear about how the county’s new treatment initiative fit into the jail proposal.

One point Louws has been clear on is that the proposal for funding the jail does not include money for diversion programs, such as addiction or mental-health treatment. Louws has said that cities’ demands for a cut of the new sales tax revenue require that all tax receipts available to the county must go to jail construction.

County Council members said planning for the jail should have included mental health and addiction services from the beginning. The county doesn’t have enough bed space for people with chemical addictions or mental illness who should be taken to a crisis center rather than to jail, county officials said.

“Our prebooking diversion options are limited right now,” council member Ken Mann said, making the point about a lack of adequate crisis center space. “If we’re going to spend $100 million, that cannot be the situation. We have to spend a lot of that money on prebooking diversion options.”

Louws said the jail-use agreement, as it stands, would not allow the county to build a smaller jail and use the extra money to pay for treatment services. That would require the county to renegotiate the agreement with the cities.

County Council Chairman Carl Weimer spoke for some of the other council members when he said he didn’t have enough assurance that county staff would follow through on a proposed overhaul of mental health and addiction services, including a pledge from the executive to spend $10 million on a new crisis center, once county officials determine how to effectively use that money.

To make that determination, the council and executive are working on creating a task force that would decide, possibly by October, what services should be included in the center. The vote establishing the task force, also slated for May 12, was postponed.

Several council members said the need for a new jail was clear. The existing facility at the County Courthouse is in disrepair and conditions there are “inhumane,” Weimer said. Space in the jail and a low-security work center on Division Street is inadequate for the 400-plus inmates the county has on average.

The new jail, to be built in south Ferndale, would have 521 beds and more space to give mental-health patients and addicts the additional attention they need.

“I think that we have a pretty good proposal for us to act on and let the voters decide come November,” council member Pete Kremen said, adding that the county also needs to make progress on diversion programs.

Council members said they didn’t want to “drag their feet” deliberating jail and treatment services too much longer. Weimer suggested they vote on the jail, the ballot measure, and the task force on May 26 or June 9.

“I would like the council to take action on this as soon as reasonably possible,” Louws said. “We need the opportunity to engage the voters to be supportive of the new jail.”