Bellingham mayor ‘still in a quandary’ over jail funding plan

When Mayor Kelli Linville and Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws appeared together on Wednesday, June 3, to give their state of the city and county addresses, Louws ticked off their several mutual accomplishments.

So far, agreement on how to pay for a new county jail isn’t one of them.

After Linville and Louws took office in January 2012, the city and county reached agreements on countywide ambulance service, a new emergency coordination center, an updated plan for Lake Whatcom cleanup, and a new court that addresses the mental health needs of defendants from county District Court and Bellingham Municipal Court.

The mayor, Louws said, “has been a great partner on issues of mutual significance.”

The proposed 521-bed jail in south Ferndale, Louws said, has been the “most challenging” part of their relationship.

Before the jail can be built, voters likely will be asked in November to approve a $97 million bond to pay for construction. If approved, the bond would be repaid with a 0.2 percent sales tax increase, adding 20 cents to a $100 retail purchase.

Before that bond vote, the county and the seven Whatcom cities must agree on whether to commit all of the remaining 0.2 percent tax available for criminal justice and public safety, and how to share the proceeds of that tax. Linville and some Bellingham council members have questioned whether the agreement as it stands is the best deal for the city.

Five of the cities have approved the agreement, which calls for the 0.2 percent tax increase and the cities paying the county most of their share of the tax for the first three years. Ferndale approved it but only on the condition that the county doesn’t change the planned jail capacity — 521 beds, then 128 more beds in a second phase. Bellingham’s council has yet to vote on it.

“I’m still in a quandary” about the jail agreement, Linville said in an interview Wednesday after the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry lunch at the Bellingham Golf & Country Club.

The 0.2 percent sales tax increase would preclude the city from raising the tax in the next 30 years for its own public health and safety needs, Linville said. State law allows for up to 0.3 percent in sales tax for public health and safety, and criminal justice. A 0.1 percent countywide sales tax voters approved in 2004 for jail facilities is still in effect.

The city under Linville has committed millions of dollars to helping people with mental illness and addiction, through the Homeless Outreach Team, paid for through the Bellingham Home Fund; a pilot program that has social service providers responding to certain 911 calls; and new police chief Cliff Cook’s community policing program.

“We’d like to help people first,” before booking them into jail, Linville said.

In her criticism of Louws’ draft of the jail agreement, Linville said she would like to see a clearer division in how the 0.1 percent tax, the proposed 0.2 percent tax and a separate 0.1 percent sales tax for mental health and addiction services would be spent. (The latter tax is not considered part of the 0.3 percent limit.)

“I would prefer a cleaner option, but we need a new jail,” Linville said.

The mayor and county executive agree in principle on a lot of things having to do with the new jail and expanded options for mental-health and addiction treatment. As Louws has said many times, Linville stated at the state of the city presentation that the current jail at the county courthouse is “not adequate, safe or efficient.”

Both leaders recognize that putting someone with a mental illness in jail because they are suspected of a crime is “the very most expensive way to give them that (mental health) treatment,” as Linville put it.

Linville agrees with Louws that the 8,000 square feet set aside in the new jail for mental and physical health care will be an improvement over the mental health evaluations that take place through the food-tray slots in the existing jail.

The County Council could approve the jail agreement at its 7 p.m. meeting on Tuesday, June 9. The Bellingham council is expected to vote on the agreement after that.