Next steps for Whatcom County jail planning unclear

Inmate Chris Mayse watches TV after getting off the night shift as a trustee at the Whatcom County Jail Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. The trustee's room has the only TV in the jail.
Inmate Chris Mayse watches TV after getting off the night shift as a trustee at the Whatcom County Jail Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. The trustee's room has the only TV in the jail. The Bellingham Herald

The next major move in planning for a new Whatcom County Jail is anyone’s guess until County Council meets Tuesday afternoon, June 23.

After Bellingham City Council rejected a plan to pay for a new $97 million jail off LaBounty Road on Monday, June 15, leaders throughout the county started to scramble.

Most recently, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville met with Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws for breakfast Thursday, June 18, to debrief on the council’s decision and talk about what steps might be taken to move forward with negotiations.

Afterward, neither of them seemed particularly happy about the situation, or to have an idea of what that next step would be.

“I’m going to take the next three days to look at everything carefully before I suggest what I believe should be the direction we plan on going,” Louws said Thursday afternoon.

Linville has told Louws since October that she would prefer using a property tax to build the jail, and maybe a sales tax to fund the ongoing operations of the facility. But Louws’ proposal, which all the small cities in the county have agreed to, relies only on a 0.2 percent sales tax increase, which would need to be approved by voters. The deadline to put a measure on the November ballot is Aug. 4.

Bellingham staff also had suggested a different divvying up of the revenue if only sales tax would be used. Rather than give 60 percent of the cash to the county and the remaining 40 percent back to the cities, as proposed, maybe half the tax increase could have 85 percent go back to the cities, and 15 percent to the county, as state law allows.

“Jack made it clear he wants it on the ballot in November, he doesn’t want to use property tax, and he wants to build it out in Ferndale at the size they’ve determined,” Linville said Thursday afternoon. “So then I feel like the city needs to step back and give up on the things that aren’t going to happen maybe, or at least prioritize the most important things.”

To her, she said the most important issue is ensuring the city’s capacity to provide alternative programs meant to help connect people with services and prevent them from going to jail. Those programs likely will help the county as well, Linville said, by keeping more people out of jail and extending the life of a new facility.

“I don’t have rose-colored glasses that this is going to solve all our problems,” she said. “But I also am very sympathetic to the vicious cycle syndrome, where what we’re doing ... what’s that saying about doing something over and over again and expecting different results? Insanity. And I believe that. If you know something is not breaking the cycle, then try something different.”

If the city were to get its 85 percent share of 0.1 percent of the tax back, Linville said she thinks it would ensure continued funding for the jail diversion programs the city has already dedicated $7 million to this year.

“I spent the majority of the day analyzing the proposal as I heard it from the mayor this morning,” Louws said. “I’m going to continue to work on that, clarify it, look at what the small cities are providing in way of a letter to the county, and I’m going to reflect until Tuesday on the direction I believe we should go. ... I’ll be able to sort it out by Tuesday at 3 o’clock.”

Linville suggested forming a task force of representatives from the County Council, City Council, small cities, and herself and Louws, but on Thursday Louws would not say if he liked the idea or not.

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.