Bellingham, county try last-gasp agreement on new jail

Inmates are cuffed at the Whatcom County Jail Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham, Washington.
Inmates are cuffed at the Whatcom County Jail Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham, Washington. The Bellingham Herald

The latest proposal from Mayor Kelli Linville to Whatcom County leaders on Monday, July 20, could be Bellingham’s last, best chance to be included in plans for a new jail.

Linville drafted language for the County Council to consider that would commit the county to do more to keep people out of jail, and do it sooner than originally intended.

An Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, created by the County Council in June, would be required by November 2016 to propose ways to expand existing programs for people with addictions and mental illness, at no extra cost to Bellingham and other cities.

When the County Council approved the task force, it was to plan for the opening of a new crisis center by the time the new jail opened, possibly in 2019.

The accelerated timeline for expanded treatment services would not go into effect if a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to pay for the new jail fails on the Nov. 3 ballot, Linville said.

Quick action on these programs is needed, Linville said, because the community faces a “crisis” over where to put people with mental illness or addictions who aren’t accepted into the overcrowded jail.

Undersheriff Jeff Parks said Wednesday, July 22, the Sheriff’s Office is evaluating ways to relieve jail overcrowding even before the new jail is opened, or in case the sales tax measure fails and a new jail is no longer on the horizon.

“We’ve quite frankly really pushed the envelope on continuing to operate the facility with the load it’s on now,” Parks said. “The sheriff feels it’s not prudent to continue our operation as it is. ... Options do include putting a population cap and reducing the current daily population that we have.”

The main jail and the work center on Division Street can hold up to 362 inmates. The average daily population in May was 382.

“I would like to see the alternatives (to jail) expanded for everyone earlier rather than later,” Linville said. “The task force will be looking at the facilities and all that, and I’m already talking to private funders. I think we’re at a crisis. We’re going to start reducing the number of beds available.”

If the County Council agrees to spend money right away on expanded programs such as home monitoring and case management for people who tend to get booked into jail repeatedly, then the mayor said she expects to be able to convince the City Council to approve a jail financial agreement already signed by the county and the six smaller cities in the county.

The City Council has two more meetings before the Aug. 14 deadline county Executive Jack Louws imposed on the city for signing the agreement. With all cities included, the county plans to build a $97 million, 521-bed jail in south Ferndale.

Without Bellingham’s participation in the agreement, a smaller, less expensive jail would be built at the same site, and Bellingham wouldn’t be guaranteed space in the jail for people arrested in the city for minor crimes.

Some County Council members had strong reservations about the mayor’s proposal when they took their first look at it on Tuesday, July 21. The council voted on Tuesday night to introduce a revised version of the proposal. The preliminary vote only enabled the council to continue to the debate and possibly take a final vote on Aug. 4.

While County Council members weren’t opposed in principle to accelerating plans to improve treatment services, they didn’t like the stipulation that the cities not be billed for those services.

“When I look at this agreement, I see a long list of things the county is being asked to fund that will reduce the burden on the city of Bellingham, and the city of Bellingham is offering nothing in return,” council member Rud Browne said.

The version of the proposal introduced by the council after 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday included language enabling the county to negotiate payments from the cities. The revised version also says the county wouldn’t “immediately” expand treatment programs but would do so “as soon as reasonably possible.”

The mayor said in an interview on Wednesday, July 22, that opening up the possibility for additional costs to the cities wasn’t a deal breaker, but it was an unexpected roadblock that will need to be discussed.

In Linville’s view, the cities are already paying “more than their fair share” under the new jail plan. While the cities would receive some extra money from the sales tax increase, it wouldn’t be enough to cover the cities’ costs for jail bed space, she said.

“Having talked with a couple of the (city) council members, we’re perfectly willing to look at the ordinance as it stands now,” Linville said, “but the thing that kills us right now is, there’ll be another charge to the cities.”

The City Council takes up the jail debate at 3 p.m. Monday, July 27, at council chambers in City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

This story was corrected on Thursday, July 23, to say that Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville intended for her proposal to only go into effect if a jail bond measure passes on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com.