Bellingham mayor calls for group negotiations for jail plan

Mayor Kelli Linville will propose forming a task force of city and county representatives to hash out plans to pay for a new jail, following City Council’s rejection of the county’s current proposal.

In response to what she called “saber-rattling,” Linville announced to reporters Wednesday afternoon, June 17, that she would suggest forming a negotiating group made up of two County Council members, two Bellingham council members, one of the mayors from the small cities, herself and Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, who crafted the funding plan Bellingham rejected Monday evening.

“We think there’s a chance to get something on the November ballot if it doesn’t readdress the size or location of the facility,” Linville said.

Louws and Linville were scheduled to meet for breakfast Thursday morning, June 18, and she planned to run the idea past him at that time.

Since last fall, Louws has shopped his plan to fund the new jail with a 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents on a $100 purchase) to the various mayors throughout the county.

Before Bellingham council took its 6-1 vote not to sign, the County Council and every small city had signed the agreement, which asked the cities to dedicate the large majority of the sales tax revenue to the county for the first few years, if voters approved the measure. The cities eventually would share 40 percent of the annual revenue among them, based on population.

Since at least October, Linville said, she had requested an alternative funding method — either a hybrid using property tax and sales tax, or a different breakdown of the sales tax that would allow for 0.1 percent or half of the proposed tax to be split 85 percent to the cities and 15 percent to the county, as state law allows.

Linville said she would find out if there was a willingness to form the task force during her meeting with Louws.

“If the message delivered to me is, ‘I meant what I said, we’re still going to work things out,’ then we’re on a straight path to get that group together and start talking,” Linville said. “If the message to me is the same message that Sheriff (Bill) Elfo gave on the radio, which is basically we’re done talking, and at the end of this year we’re not going to extend your jail agreement, well that’s a whole different response. I’m hoping it’s the first.”

Over the last several months, Elfo has made it clear that if the new jail plan is not finalized by the end of the year, when the current contract for the city’s jail use runs out, he will crack down on the overcrowding in the jail. That could mean not accepting people arrested by the cities for less-serious crimes if the jail is full with inmates charged with felonies.

In response to Bellingham’s Monday vote to use five core principles in further negotiations, Louws said he would have wanted those high-level points articulated back in April, and that they were not as detailed as he wanted. He said he would like Linville to edit the agreement to something that would be acceptable and pass it through Bellingham’s council before he could consider if it was workable or not.

But Linville said city staff had provided several documents to the county since last fall, including an analysis of the jail agreement from April 10 and a list of general challenges from May 4, which were meant to try to “turn the direction of the ship.”

“The ship arrived with a 0.2 percent sales tax, and that really didn’t change throughout the whole discussion, from when we first heard about it ‘til now,” she said.

City staff had already gone through the proposal, line by line, and presented the edits to the county.

“If you don’t agree on the goals, you can’t agree on a red line,” Linville said. “If you don’t agree on what you’re trying to achieve, you can’t agree line by line to all the words. It just doesn’t work. I think the conversation that I need to have with the county executive, and obviously the councils need to have with each other, is do we have some common ground that’s worth trying to move forward on, and I think there could be.”

Though the small-city mayors planned to ask Whatcom County Council to consider moving forward with the proposal without Bellingham, the city would not consider building its own jail facility.

“The city is not in the jail business,” Linville said. “I have not been in the mind of taking on a facility. There would have to be another solution for us than building our own jail.”

The County Council is set to discuss the issue 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.