Bellingham council’s resistance casts doubt on jail plan

Inmates Jack Gunion, left, Jacob Whiting, and Benjamin Jenning in their cell block at the Whatcom County Jail Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. The jail was built in 1983 and was expanded to hold 212 inmates. It has held up to 315 inmates at times.
Inmates Jack Gunion, left, Jacob Whiting, and Benjamin Jenning in their cell block at the Whatcom County Jail Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. The jail was built in 1983 and was expanded to hold 212 inmates. It has held up to 315 inmates at times. The Bellingham Herald

The fate of a plan to pay for a new Whatcom County jail became uncertain after the County Council approved it on Tuesday, June 9.

Council passed the jail cost-sharing agreement 6-1, believing the Bellingham City Council probably would reject it.

The city and county councils may meet in a joint session as early as next week to work out an agreement that would be acceptable to both governments.

The agreement as approved by the county and all of the Whatcom cities except Bellingham calls for a countywide ballot measure in November to create a 0.2 percent sales tax , which would repay $97 million in bonds that would go toward construction and operation of the jail. The total cost of the jail, the adjoining Sheriff’s Office and the 39-acre property in south Ferndale where they will sit is $122.5 million.

Bellingham council members say they still have a lot of questions about the agreement, and they are unsure whether they will approve it. In any case, they have said they wouldn’t even consider it until the County Council passed it. That put the county in the position of approving the agreement Tuesday night, whether individual council members liked it or not.

“I’m voting for it to send it to the city of Bellingham to find out where they’re at,” County Council member Carl Weimer said.

“They’ve made it pretty clear to me in my discussions that they want a sales tax and property tax mix. I think that’s a pretty clear message,” Weimer said a little later.

That may be the biggest obstacle to an agreement between Bellingham and the county: where the money to pay for the jail is going to come from. Mayor Kelli Linville has said she would prefer to use a property tax. If the sales tax is raised by 0.2 percent, as the current agreement calls for, the county and the individual cities will hit their limit for sales tax increases for criminal justice purposes, and there would be no more capacity for the city to create its own sales tax to meet criminal justice needs.

According to an email from county Executive Jack Louws to City Council member Jack Weiss, the county would need to levy a property tax of 28 cents per $1,000 in value (about $75 a year for the median-priced home in the county) to pay off the $97 million bond. But property tax money can only be spent on construction. The county also would need to increase the sales tax by some lesser amount, say 0.1 percent, to pay for day-to-day operation of the jail.

“That would provide the city with the opportunity to do other public health and safety programs with the remaining 0.1 percent that would be available in the bank for the city to use in the future,” Weiss said Wednesday, June 10, in an interview. “That is something, my own personal thought is, that I am most in favor of — an approach like that. Other council members feel similarly.”

In his email to Weiss, Louws said a dual request to voters for property and sales tax hikes wasn’t feasible.

“Making two asks for the jail project is problematic to explain to voters, and problematic to legally tie together on (the) ballot,” Louws wrote in the May 19 email.

Besides, Louws said, the county is likely to ask for something like a 20 cent per $1,000 property tax hike in 2016 to fund emergency medical services.

City Council member Terry Bornemann on Wednesday said he, too, would like to explore the property tax option. He also said the county could do more to keep people out of jail, for example by providing case managers to help drug court defendants find a job or a place to live, or having court staff call to remind people of their court dates so they aren’t jailed for failing to appear at a hearing.

Weiss and Bornemann both said they haven’t been convinced that a jail with as many as 521 beds, as called for in the first phase of construction, is needed. More robust jail alternative programs could keep inmate numbers lower, they said.

The County Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the creation of a task force to pursue better treatment options for people with mental illness and addictions. The council decided to postpone a vote on whether to put the $97 million bond on the ballot, pending the city’s decision on the jail cost-sharing agreement.

County Council has until Aug. 4 to put the measure on the November ballot.

The City Council is scheduled to discuss the jail proposal at a meeting that starts at 2:15 p.m. Monday, June 15. The meeting takes place at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

Gene Knutson, the City Council president, said the agreement might not be killed in City Hall.

“I don’t know where they think it’s a dead issue on the city side,” Knutson said Wednesday, June 10, in an interview. “We’ll discuss this on Monday, and we’ll see where we go with it.”

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.

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