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Whatcom council ensures treatment center will be part of new jail

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

The new $122.5 million jail and sheriff’s office has become something even bigger.

Whatcom County Council has maneuvered its pending approval of these two facilities so that they don’t come without a third — a new crisis center where people with mental illness or addictions can be taken instead of jail.

Council signaled earlier this month that it could take three jail-related votes as early as Tuesday, May 26: a cost-sharing agreement with the cities in the county, a construction bond that would appear on the November ballot, and a task force to plan the crisis center and come up with other ways to keep people with mental illness and addiction out of jail.

Those votes were not considered Tuesday but are expected at the council’s next meeting on June 9. Council Chairman Carl Weimer said in an interview on Wednesday, May 27, council wanted to use the “leverage” it had over the executive to make sure the task force was created. So council members allowed themselves time on Tuesday to finalize the language of the task-force ordinance.

“We wanted to make sure we completed (the task force and jail-diversion efforts) so we didn’t lose attention on those things once we bought off on the jail proposal,” Weimer said. “We were really viewing this as a whole package.”

A resolution creating the task force was beefed up when council reintroduced it Tuesday as an ordinance, so it would become part of county law and be signed by the executive.

Executive Jack Louws has been urging the council to pass the cost-sharing agreement and the ballot measure as soon as possible, so the message could go out to voters about the need for a new jail. Louws has said council must put the bond on the ballot this year if it’s going to be enough to cover the rapidly increasing costs of jail construction.

Voters would be asked to approve a 0.2 percent sales tax countywide that would increase the cost of a $100 purchase by 20 cents.

The bond would cover $97 million of the cost of the Ferndale facility; the sheriff’s office would be built from existing county funds. A crisis center would cost roughly $10 million, with some of that money coming from the sale of the county’s low-security inmate work center on Division Street.

While the county has fixed on a 39-acre south Ferndale property for the jail and sheriff’s office, the location of the crisis center is to be determined. Under the task-force ordinance, the council and executive would commit to opening the center no later than the scheduled opening of the new jail, which is tentatively set for spring 2019.

Anne Deacon, the county human services manager, asked the council on Tuesday to think about where the new task force would fit into the existing bureaucracy. The county already has a system in place to try to keep people out of jail and take care of those with mental illness or addictions. Much of this work is funded by a special sales tax that brings in $3.7 million a year, strictly for behavioral health care.

Two advisory committees currently look for the best ways to spend that money and make sure the money goes to the right county programs.

In an interview on Wednesday, May 27, Deacon said it’s not for her to decide how the new task force would mesh with the work of those committees.

“This may be more of a political issue — one that I’m not in a position to opine,” Deacon said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “In relation to the new jail proposal, I have heard the question from local taxpayers, ‘What are we doing to keep people from going to jail?’ This is a reasonable question, and perhaps the formation of the task force will emphasize the importance of focusing on and answering that question.”

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