Bellingham confronts take-it-or-leave-it jail offer

The women’s dormitory at the Whatcom County Jail was so crowded in 2004 that some inmates had to sleep on the floor.
The women’s dormitory at the Whatcom County Jail was so crowded in 2004 that some inmates had to sleep on the floor. The Bellingham Herald

Bellingham leaders will need to decide whether they will buy into a new 521-bed jail under terms they’ve already rejected or find some other approach to putting suspects in minor crimes behind bars.

The Whatcom County Council forced city officials into that position Tuesday, June 23, when it voted 4 to 3 to move ahead with a jail agreement already accepted by the six smaller cities in the county but rejected by Bellingham.

In the same vote, the County Council put a 0.2 percent sales tax increase on the Nov. 3 ballot, with revenue to go to the construction and operation of the jail. It would be built on a 39-acre site in south Ferndale.

Bellingham officials had advanced a counterproposal that would have enabled cities to keep more of the new sales tax revenue. The cities would have received a projected $107 million more under Bellingham’s plan, over the 30-plus year lifetime of the jail construction bond.

According to figures provided by Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, Bellingham’s draft of the agreement would require the county to spend $3.2 million more per year out of pocket to cover jail costs.

Mayor Kelli Linville, who had been negotiating with Louws before the County Council’s decision Tuesday night, said she and the executive will continue to meet over the next several days to discuss how Bellingham might fit into the jail plan.

In an interview Wednesday, June 24, Linville said she had sought an agreement that brought more money to the cities so she could be assured the money would be spent on the types of programs that keep people out of jail. The city already spends $7 million a year on jail alternatives, including services to people with addictions or mental illness, and to house the homeless.

“We want to expand on what we’re doing because we believe alternatives will help,” Linville said. “Not everybody who’s in the jail needs to be there.”

Linville won’t be able to haggle over the terms of the agreement because the County Council showed Tuesday night it’s willing to advance its version of the agreement with only the six smaller cities signing it. If Bellingham doesn’t agree to it, the county jail would be built with about 400 beds at a cost of about $75 million, rather than the proposed 521-bed, $97 million jail, Louws said.

Still, Linville said she could accept the county’s draft of the agreement if Louws assures her the county will spend some of its new tax revenue on alternative programs. The city’s decision ultimately rests with the City Council, which will get direction from Linville.

The county executive has already told the County Council that proceeds from the sales tax won’t be enough to pay for the jail and for mental health and addiction programs. Linville said that nevertheless, the county needs to come up with more money for jail alternatives.

The county has access to a special sales tax for jail diversion programs and is spending $4 million this year on such services. During the interview, Linville pointed out that was considerably less than the $7 million the city has committed to similar programs.

“I want to make sure I give credit to the county for the money they’re spending on diversion,” Linville said. “We all know it’s not enough.”

City Council members reached by phone Wednesday didn’t know what to expect once the council meets in July to reconsider the county jail agreement. On June 15, the City Council rejected the agreement in a 6-to-1 vote. Council President Gene Knutson was the only member who supported the agreement.

“We need to move forward on this; we need a new jail,” Knutson said Wednesday. “I’m willing to go along with this and sign off on it.”

Knutson said if Bellingham must figure out on its own how to hold people arrested by city police, it would cost the city “millions and millions of dollars.”

The county is obligated to incarcerate people charged with felonies, whether they’re arrested in a city or by the county sheriff. Misdemeanors that occur in a city are that city’s responsibility.

“My worst fears have come true,” Knutson said. “The city of Bellingham in no way, shape or form could get shut out of this (agreement).”

County Council members who voted to put the bond measure on the ballot and end negotiations with Bellingham were motivated at least partially by a sense of urgency over building a new jail. The current facility adjacent to the County Courthouse and a low-security work center on Division Street are overcrowded. The main jail is unsafe for deputies and inmates, to the point that county officials routinely refer to conditions there as “inhumane.”

“We have tried very hard to work with the city,” said County Council member Barbara Brenner, who was in the majority with Rud Browne, Pete Kremen and Satpal Sidhu. “I say, let’s work with them in the future, especially on the issues we can agree on. But I think it’s time — it’s way past time — to move on with this.”

County Council member Carl Weimer said Bellingham’s support was vital to the success of the bond measure. He voted against putting it on the ballot without securing that support. Barry Buchanan and Ken Mann voted with him.

“The mayor’s proposal ... is a no-starter for me. We just can’t make that work,” Weimer said. “But on the other hand, it seems like this whole ballot issue is dead if the city of Bellingham doesn’t go along.”

“I don’t know how you can go out to a vote of the county, almost half of whom live in Bellingham, and say, ‘Please support a county jail, but we’re not going to include you,’” Weimer said.

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.