Bellingham won’t sign jail deal, looking at options

Minimum security inmates read, play cards and walk around a 32-person housing unit at Whatcom County Jail’s Interim Work Center on June 30 in Bellingham.
Minimum security inmates read, play cards and walk around a 32-person housing unit at Whatcom County Jail’s Interim Work Center on June 30 in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

Not surprisingly, Bellingham will not join Whatcom County and nearby cities in an agreement to pay for a proposed new Whatcom County Jail by the county’s deadline.

Little discussion was had about the agreement during the 7 p.m. Bellingham City Council meeting Monday, Aug. 10, and no vote was taken on it, but Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws has made it clear he wanted every interested party to have it signed by Aug. 14.

Louws made a personal appeal to the council during an afternoon session Monday, asking once more that the members opt to join in the deal.

“If Bellingham chooses to be responsible for your correctional requirements in future years, I respect that,” Louws said.

But a decision not to join the county would be difficult for everyone, and could spark the county to split up both jail services and programs meant to keep people out of jail, he said.

“I don’t think anybody in the city has suggested we want that,” Bellingham council member Michael Lilliquist said. “We want a unified facility.”

About two hours into the council’s evening meeting, council president Gene Knutson, the only member in favor of the deal when it first went to a vote this spring, asked if any other council member wanted to reintroduce the agreement.

“You know Gene, I would love to be able to do that,” council member Terry Bornemann replied. “I was really really hoping we would have gotten some movement, some communication from the county executive ... but there’s been no movement at all.”

As currently drafted, the document asks all cities in the county to kick back most of the revenue from a proposed 0.2 percent public safety sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase) that would max out the county’s capacity for that tax. Half of the tax would expire after 30 years, once the bonds to build the new facility in Ferndale had been repaid.

After Bellingham first opted not to sign in mid-June, the most significant change Louws made to the deal would allow the county and partner cities to move forward without Bellingham’s participation. Previously, all parties had to sign on.

Without Bellingham, the jail could be built with fewer than the originally proposed 521 beds, and Bellingham’s inmates could be accepted on a space-available basis.

But the entire plan hinges on whether voters countywide choose to pass the sales tax increase in November.

Plan B

Regardless of the election outcome, Bellingham staff will start to work on alternative plans for the inmates that the city is required to house.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, who has fought to replace the current overcrowded and insufficient jail for the better part of a decade, has said that once Bellingham’s contract to use the current jail is up in December, he will start reducing crowding.

The county is legally responsible for all felons, regardless of which city books them, but cities are responsible for people charged with a misdemeanor.

“There will be financial consequences for us come January,” Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville told the council. “We’re going to have to have some serious discussions about what happens if we don’t sign the jail agreement” and there’s no room for the city’s inmates “at the inn.”

After the council meeting, Linville said a team of city staff members will start working immediately to figure out potential options for the city’s inmates if and when they are not accepted at the county jail.

“We need to work on this now because the county has to alleviate crowding no matter what,” she said. “I just think it might happen sooner if the sales tax doesn’t pass.”

City Finance Director Brian Henshaw told the council in July that he had checked with a facility in Eastern Washington that would be willing to transport and house the city’s inmates for $65 a day, less than the current daily cost per inmate in Whatcom County of $80.

However, there would likely be other costs associated with housing inmates in another county, Linville said.

“That’s the kind of discussion I’d like to be having with Jack (Louws) now,” she said. “If there is a transition, how do we work together to make it smooth?”

Jail alternatives

City Council had even less to say about changes the Whatcom County Council made to its jail alternatives task force on Aug. 4.

The changes were initiated by Linville, who had asked that the county commit to funding jail-diversion programs that the task force will ultimately recommend.

The County Council did tweak its guidelines for the incarceration prevention group, which it created earlier this year, accepting many of Linville’s proposed changes. But in the end, the County Council will still decide which recommendations, if any, to fund.

When Knutson asked if the City Council wanted to vote on or say anything about changes, he was met with silence.

In an interview after the evening meeting, Linville said she didn’t know what she would tell voters who asked if they should support the sales tax, since there was no guarantee some of the money would be used to help people stay out of jail.

“I know we need a new jail, and we need a new jail for the felons the county is going to incarcerate for us,” Linville said. “But I really wanted some guarantee, and I mean guarantee, that the amount of revenue that’s going to be collected over time will not just go into building and operating a jail.”

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.