Bellingham council rejects plan to pay for new jail

Inmate Brian Terris gets lunch in cell block C at the Whatcom County Jail Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham.
Inmate Brian Terris gets lunch in cell block C at the Whatcom County Jail Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

City Council rejected a proposal to pay for the building and operation of a new Whatcom County Jail during its regular Monday night meeting, June 15.

The 6-1 vote to reject the countywide agreement (member Gene Knutson opposed) puts the ball back in the Whatcom County government’s court.

The County Council and five other cities in the county had already signed onto the agreement, drafted by Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws and his staff. It would ask county residents to approve a 0.2 percent sales tax increase on the November ballot, adding 20 cents to every $100 purchase to pay for a new $97 million jail off LaBounty Road.

The agreement asked the cities to dedicate the large majority of the sales tax revenue to the county for the first few years, if the voters approved the measure, with the cities eventually sharing 40 percent of the annual revenue between them, based on their population.

Resoundingly, the Bellingham council members said they thought the county needed a new jail but did not think the agreement was right yet.

“I’m totally in favor of building a new jail. I’ve worked in the criminal justice system a good part of my adult life, and we do need that,” council member Terry Bornemann said. “But we also need the right (agreement) moving forward. It’s not a rejection of the concept, it’s of this (agreement).”

Louws originally wanted to get the agreement signed by each city in time to put the measure on the August primary ballot, but that deadline came and passed as Bellingham pushed for more financial details and questioned the tax method.

Bellingham council members Dan Hammill and Jack Weiss said they worried about using a sales tax instead of a property tax to pay for the jail, as sales taxes can unfairly burden people in lower income brackets.

“Washington state is the most regressive in the union for taxes,” Hammill said. “It’s clear we need a new jail, but this proposal isn’t a good deal for the city, and it’s not a good deal for Bellingahm’s taxpayers.”

During the evening discussion, City Attorney Peter Ruffatto presented a list of what appeared to be the most important principles to use in crafting an agreement going forward, according to staff and the council.

First up: “Prevention and diversion programs need to be funded under the agreement and implemented with city representation.”

“That’s a public safety tax, you need to think of that broadly,” Ruffatto said. “The city is funding various programs ... I expect there is a desire to extend those further.”

Second: There should be equitable contribution to the capital project and operation of the jail based on who uses the facility, and how.

Ruffato was concerned about the formula that will be used to determine how much each user that books someone into the jail – the cities, Lummi Nation, the Department of Corrections and others – will have to pay per day for that inmate’s stay.

“How is the cost being allocated? What revenue is being taken off the top before determining those per diems?” Ruffato asked. “As an attorney you’re looking for reliability. You want to know how it’s set up, so in 10 years you have something to go back to.”

Third and fourth: “Operational funds and capital funds need to be separated,” and, “The city must have continued access to the facility and programs.”

Mayor Kelli Linville tried to get an idea of where each member stood, so there would be specific points to bring to the negotiating table, if the county is willing to do so.

“If we can be as clear as possible about what we’re trying to achieve, I think that’s better,” she said.

Council member Michael Lilliquist said those principles made sense to him, and he moved to add another to the list: Any agreement should preserve the city’s ability to meet its own public safety needs. The other council members agreed, and voted 6-1 to use the principles.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow her on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.

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