Bellingham leaders not supporting sales tax for new jail

A deputy escorts an inmate to a minimum security housing area on Saturday, July 4, at the Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham, Wash.
A deputy escorts an inmate to a minimum security housing area on Saturday, July 4, at the Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham, Wash. The Bellingham Herald

Though all city leaders agree the county needs a new jail, most will not back the current plan to pay for one.

And unless Whatcom County makes a different commitment to pay for jail alternatives and/or revamps the current funding plan, those leaders will tell Bellingham voters they don’t back a sales tax increase for the jail that’s on the November ballot.

If Bellingham voters follow suit, the new jail plans, which rely on passage of the sales tax, could be in jeopardy.

On Tuesday, Aug. 4, Whatcom County Council will hold its last meeting until mid-September. Among the items to be discussed are changes to a jail alternatives task force the council created earlier this year.

The changes were originally suggested as a last-ditch effort by Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, who had suggested that if the county were to commit (in ink) to funding the jail diversion programs recommended by the task force, that might convince some Bellingham City Council members to sign the jail use agreement in its current form.

Before City Council got the chance to look at Linville’s changes Monday, July 27, County Council already had softened the wording Linville proposed so they still would have the final say on whether to fund alternatives meant to keep people from returning to jail, or heading there in the first place.

“This was one more attempt to see if some agreement on diversion and prevention should be part of the overall discussion,” Linville told City Council July 27. “I’m in my old legislative mode, where sometimes you don’t settle something until sine die (the last day of the legislative session).”

Though she said she agreed with some changes proposed by County Council, including asking the task force to deliver its list of alternatives by November 2016, Linville said the “poison pill for me is that any alternatives potentially would be at the expense of the cities,” which doesn’t solve the problem she wanted it to.

The game changer for Bellingham council member Pinky Vargas was the elimination of Linville’s language calling for the county to immediately expand available jail alternatives such as probation, home monitoring of inmates, and intensive case management. The County Council changed the wording to instead read “expand, as soon as reasonably possible.”

“With the County Council crossing that out and saying as soon as possible, for me it became null and void at that point,” Vargas said. “If we can actually put people in diversion programs and get them support immediately, we can probably divert a lot of people that are going to jail right now.”

Without agreement, voters get mixed messages

Back on June 23, County Council voted 4-3 to ask voters to approve a new 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase) to pay for a new jail on 39 acres in Ferndale. Half of the tax would go away after the bonds are repaid.

All the small cities in the county originally signed an agreement that would allow them to use the jail in exchange for diverting most of their share of the sales tax increase to the county in early years to help pay for the jail.

Bellingham has balked at the lack of alternatives, pointing out the increase would max out that particular public safety tax for everyone in the county, funneling nearly all of the revenue to the jail. In response, county Executive Jack Louws and the County Council changed the document so the jail could go ahead with or without Bellingham’s signature.

Louws has given all the cities in the county until Aug. 14 to decide if that sounds like a good deal. It’s likely Bellingham will again be the only holdout on the plan.

As things stand, at least four of the seven Bellingham council members have said they would not support the sales tax measure to pay for the jail, and would tell Bellingham voters as much.

Bellingham council member Gene Knutson, the sole member of the City Council who wanted to sign the jail use agreement, said it was unfortunate things had ended up the way they had, specifically because of the mixed message it might send voters. He pointed to the county’s 4-3 vote to send the measure to the ballot and to sign the use agreement as unclear.

“We pride ourselves on City Council, when we put something before the voters, it’s usually unanimous, so you send a strong signal,” Knutson said. “I hope the people pass it, that’s my wish. Hopefully the jail agreement can be worked on after (the election) is over, somehow, some way.”

When asked what they would tell Bellingham voters who wonder if they should vote for the sales tax without a jail agreement, Bellingham council members Michael Lilliquist, Jack Weiss, Terry Bornemann and Vargas said they would point to their own no votes.

“I’ll tell them not to vote for it, this isn’t a good deal for the citizens of Bellingham,” Bornemann said. “Wait ’til we can negotiate a deal that is equitable to the small cities, the county, and Bellingham. I will tell them we need a new jail, but not at any cost.”

Vargas and Weiss said they wouldn’t tell someone how to vote, but neither of them would support the measure under the current agreement.

“I don’t tell people how to vote, but I will tell them how I will vote. I won’t be supporting the agreement as it’s presented at this point,” Weiss said. “It precludes any opportunities for us to do any other emergency or safety issues in the future.”

State law caps the specific “public safety” sales tax to 0.3 percent per county. County voters already approved a third of that in November 2005 to pay for Emergency Medical Services and criminal justice.

Under a different portion of state law, county voters also approved a 0.1 percent sales tax increase in November 2004 to help pay for a new jail.

County is done negotiating with cities

Lilliquist said he’d like to negotiate the agreement further, a common sentiment among Bellingham council members.

Executive Louws said he is done negotiating with the cities, and if Bellingham wants to change the use agreement, it would need to go out on its own to get the approval from the small cities.

“We’re to the point right now where we’re out of time,” Louws said. “As it relates to the jail facility use agreement, the financial instrument needed to be able to seal the bonds and pay it off, that document is set at this point.”

There is still time to negotiate the jail diversion task force changes presented by Linville, Louws said, but he would not be involved in further negotiating the jail use agreement.

“Bellingham council hasn’t made a motion to change one word of it,” he said.

“They haven’t given me any reasonable alternatives to consider. I’m not going to negotiate against myself on this.”

If the sales tax measure passes and the county moves forward with a smaller, less expensive jail, the suspects arrested by Bellingham police on misdemeanor charges could be accepted into the jail on a space-available basis, or the city could send inmates to jails in Eastern Washington.

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.