Whatcom cities to weigh jail options after Bellingham vote

Hours after Bellingham City Council opted not to sign onto an agreement to pay for a new Whatcom County Jail, mayors of the county’s small cities met to talk about their options.

The leaders from Lynden, Blaine, Sumas, Nooksack, Everson and Ferndale meet monthly, usually to talk about economic development, but their meeting Tuesday morning, June 16, was focused in part on plans to replace the current jail, which is overcrowded and in disrepair.

“We’re kind of vulnerable, the small cities,” said Bob Bromley, Sumas mayor and current chairman of the small cities caucus. “We’ve got to provide (jail) service somehow, and it’s going to be too costly if we’ve got to send people outside of Whatcom County.”

The mayors considered whether they could try to move forward with the proposed agreement without Bellingham, considering every other involved legislative body in the county had signed onto it before Bellingham opted not to. Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen said he was not able to attend the meeting.

Using a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to pay for the facility is appealing to the small cities, some of which have already maxed out on property tax, Bromley said. Bellingham council and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville have suggested using property taxes to pay for at least part of the cost.

“We’ve got a real short time window — August 4 (the plan) has to be in to be placed on the ballot,” Bromley said. “We’re looking at about six, seven weeks. There’s only a few council meetings left between that time to work something out, so I think it’s problematic with this timing.”

The small-city mayors planned to send a letter to Whatcom County Council by the end of the week, asking the council consider moving forward with the agreement during its meeting Tuesday, June 23.

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, who crafted the funding plan with his staff, said he was glad Bellingham had finally made a decision but disappointed it took so long to get there.

Bellingham’s council voted Monday night, June 15, to use five main principles to continue negotiating over the jail, including asking for the capital and operating costs to be clearly and separately laid out, and requiring assurances in the agreement that jail diversion and alternative programs would be funded.

“I was expecting more detailed response than what I got,” Louws said. “I’m disappointed these high-level discussion points weren’t articulated back in April, within the time frame of other cities acting upon it. We really are out of time. That is unfortunate.”

Louws said that at this point, he needs to know exactly what the Bellingham council would pass, and would wait for a formal response from them.

“I’m going to ask the mayor to modify the document to her satisfaction and resubmit it to the Bellingham City Council for a yes or a no vote,” Louws said. “At that particular time, I’ll have the ability to know what they’re in favor of or not, and then consider whether or not it’s workable.”

Though one of the council’s complaints was that they didn’t feel they had enough information to make the right decision at this point, Louws said he thinks they do.

“I’ve been working with the mayor’s office since last September on this,” Louws said. “I believe they have enough information to identify what their needs are for the financing package. If I can provide information that’s already been developed, I’m more than happy to reissue that to them for their consideration.”

County Council president Carl Weimer said he wasn’t surprised by the decision, and he heard Bellingham council members voice some of the same consternation members of the County Council had, too.

“A lot of this was hatched before we even started talking about it,” Weimer said. “The executive had been meeting with the mayors for months before the city or county council really knew what was going on. Since the mayors had kind of signed off, the thought was the councils would, too, but we had different concerns.”

The County Council also had asked for more specific analysis on prevention programs and the cost per bed, which seemed high, Weimer said.

“Ultimately I don’t think we got real clear answers to how the bed costs break out, but I think the county has perhaps been given more information (than the city),” he said.

Still, Weimer said he was not sure what the hold-up was for the city.

“If it’s about fairness and prevention, I think we can find a quick solution,” he said. “If it’s more the money, I think it might be more complicated. ... County Council didn’t really dwell on the agreement and pots of money from the cities. Our main concern was the size of the jail and how we can prevent sending (people) there.”

Louws said he would not recommend moving forward without Bellingham, as the small cities discussed, but it is one of the options the county may have to consider. He plans to lay out various options for the County Council on Tuesday, June 23.

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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