Whatcom council: ‘Lock us in a room’ to resolve plan for new jail

A new county jail to be built in Ferndale, and a sales-tax increase to pay for the jail, remain in limbo as the Whatcom County Council pushes for improvements to mental-health and addiction treatment services.

Council will consider each piece of the jail puzzle separately, in committee meetings on Tuesday, May 12.

Council must vote by Aug. 4 to put the 0.2 percent sales tax hike on the November ballot. Before the council votes, all seven cities in the county must sign a contract with the county, detailing how the jurisdictions will share the costs of jail construction and operation.

Executive Jack Louws’ emphasis since he took office in 2012 has been to get the jail built. The executive guided the council through an environmental review of the jail site, which is on LaBounty Road and Sunset Avenue in Ferndale; the purchase of the 39-acre property in December 2013; and the design specifications of the 521-bed facility.

What the executive neglected, some council members said, was the opportunity to pair the $122.5 million jail and sheriff’s office project with an investment in mental-health and addiction services.

The county will spend $4.1 million this year on those services, with money from a 0.1-percent sales tax earmarked for behavioral health care and approved by the County Council in 2008. Even with that funding, county officials agree more bed space is needed for people with mental illness and addictions, as an alternative to jail.

The executive and council members have said better treatment options would result in lower incarceration rates. This could put off the need for further expansion of the jail, or — as some council members suggested — make room in the jail for treatment beds.

“This is what I heard, and I’m hoping I’m totally correct on this — if we don’t use all the beds for jail purposes, those beds can be used for totally other social service purposes,” council member Barbara Brenner said on May 5, when the council met as the county Board of Health.

In an interview Friday, May 8, Louws confirmed that in general, if part of the jail were closed for an extended time due to a low inmate population, “we could utilize the space.” Giving specific examples, Louws didn’t mention programs to keep people out of jail; rather, he said the extra space could be used for programs for the inmates, or as dry storage.

The focus for Louws and the council is on a plan to build a roughly $10 million crisis center where people with addictions or mental illness can go for treatment after they are arrested, instead of going to jail. Most council members say the plan, which includes creating a task force to oversee the crisis center and its programs, is a step in the right direction. They also recognize the need for a new jail, given the courthouse jail’s deteriorating condition and safety problems.

Council has signaled a willingness to vote within the next month on the ballot measure, the contract with the cities and a resolution to move ahead with the crisis center.

Five of the seven cities have agreed to the contract. Bellingham and Ferndale’s councils are waiting for the county to approve it before bringing it up for a vote.

Louws offered to meet with each of the seven County Council members one on one to address their remaining concerns. Council Chairman Carl Weimer suggested all council members and the executive’s team meet in the same room until they reach agreement.

“If we don’t seem to come to a fairly close conclusion to where we’re at on the 12th, maybe we want to ... lock us in a room with you and your team for two, three, four hours to talk through the jail issues,” Weimer told Louws at the Board of Health meeting.

The council’s schedule on Tuesday, May 12, for jail discussions:

• 11 a.m.:

Jail-use agreement

with cities;

ballot measure

• 1:30 p.m.

Task force

on crisis center

Meetings are held at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.