Bellingham faces deadline to partner with county on new jail

An inmate is prepared for transport on Thursday, July 2, at Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham. The county is moving ahead with plans for a new jail, even if Bellingham officials don’t sign on to it.
An inmate is prepared for transport on Thursday, July 2, at Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham. The county is moving ahead with plans for a new jail, even if Bellingham officials don’t sign on to it. The Bellingham Herald

As expected, the Whatcom County Council on Tuesday, July 7, approved a revised agreement that would allow construction of a new jail in Ferndale, whether or not Bellingham helps pay for it.

If Bellingham leaders don’t sign the agreement by the Aug. 14 deadline imposed by county Executive Jack Louws, the county and very likely the remaining six cities will agree to construct a smaller, less expensive jail. In that case, suspects arrested by Bellingham police on misdemeanor charges would be accepted into the jail, under a separate agreement, only if space were available.

County Council members signaled Tuesday night’s vote in a more significant action two weeks earlier, when they decided to put a 0.2 percent sales tax on the November ballot, to pay for building and operating the new jail on 39 acres at Sunset Avenue and LaBounty Drive. In the same June 23 vote, council asked the executive to make the city-county agreement more flexible, so it could go into effect with or without Bellingham.

At both meetings, the jail votes were the same: 4 to 3, with council members Barry Buchanan, Ken Mann and Carl Weimer opposed.

If Bellingham does sign the agreement — a decision that doesn’t seem imminent — then the 521-bed, $97 million jail can move forward as planned. Louws said he set an Aug. 14 deadline so Bellingham’s decision could be reflected in the information in the voters pamphlet.

Without Bellingham and its contribution to the construction cost, Louws said Tuesday that a jail with 383 to 401 beds would be built for about $75 million. These new figures were roughly worked out over the previous week by the county’s jail consultant, DLR Group of Seattle, Louws said.

“Without (Bellingham’s) $1.3 million capital contribution, the county will have a bond capacity of around $75 million,” Louws said Wednesday, July 8, in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “This smaller jail facility will be able to house the county’s and the participating small cities’ inmates. The city of Bellingham will need to find alternative housing for their legally responsible inmates.”

The current jail near the courthouse was built to hold 148 inmates, then later upgraded to hold 212, but has held up to 315, according to jail staff. A minimum security facility in the Irongate area, which opened in 2006, can hold up to 150 inmates.

County Council members who voted against the agreement thought the Nov. 3 ballot measure wouldn’t pass without Bellingham signing on, and one of them said it doesn’t go far enough to reduce incarceration rates for people with mental illness and addictions.

“I am voting against this because it’s a $100 million project that is not the most efficient use of our resources,” Mann said before Tuesday night’s vote. “I believe our consultants failed us and did not provide us with anywhere near the number of options or analysis they should have to help us reduce our incarcerated population. ... I don’t think there’s any chance this passes at the ballot this fall.”

Council member Barbara Brenner, who supported the jail agreement, pointed out that county leaders last month committed to open a $10 million crisis center for people with mental illnesses and addictions no later than when the new jail opens, possibly in 2019. The council’s decision in June also created a 23-member Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, which will plan the crisis center and the programs it will house.

Council is taking applications for the 11 open seats on the task force. For more information, go to whatcomcounty.us and find the listing for the task force positions on the home page.

Weimer has maintained the ballot measure won’t pass without Bellingham taking part in the jail deal. After Tuesday night’s meeting, Weimer said the measure was “DOA” without Bellingham.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville told City Council Monday, July 6, that despite the various requests she and the council had made to change the agreement, Bellingham’s call to ensure funding for alternatives to jail and diversion programs had not been included.

“What we’re left with is the proposal as it exists,” Linville said during a Monday afternoon council session. “The only thing left to determine is, will Bellingham be a part of that agreement or not?”

Nooksack and Lynden councils approved the new agreement July 6, just hours after the county’s mayors met with Louws to determine if any other changes would be made.

Bellingham Finance Director Brian Henshaw laid out the financial scenarios for the council:

With the city’s signature, it would get about $600,000 in 2019 from the proposed sales tax increase, rising to $3 million in 2048. Without a signature, Bellingham would get about $2 million in 2019 if the voters still passed the sales tax increase, but the city might not be guaranteed space in the jail.

Because county officials have pointed out that the existing jail agreement with Bellingham expires on Dec. 31, city staff have started looking at alternatives for housing inmates should they not be accepted at the overcrowded Whatcom County Jail.

Including the cost of transportation to and from a facility in Eastern Washington, bed-day costs at another facility there would be $65 per day, Henshaw said — less than the current daily cost per inmate in Whatcom County of $80. In the new jail, the bed cost could rise to $100.

Council member Terry Bornemann said he was disappointed the agreement hadn’t been further negotiated.

“Out of the two largest government (bodies) the best you can do is get five votes out of 14,” Bornemann said. “That says to me you’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of passing a countywide jail (ballot measure). We need to continue going forward, talking with the county, so when this goes down in flames we can have a ballot measure ready that will pass.”

Linville said she wanted to clarify that the issue for the city wasn’t about getting more money for anything other than alternatives.

“This isn’t money we’re saying we’d like to spend on something else like a park or whatever,” Linville said. “That would be committed to be spent on the alternatives we’ve talked about.”

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.