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About-face: Whatcom County willing to negotiate jail plan with Bellingham

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

In an about-face, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws said he is willing to continue negotiating the terms of a new jail agreement with the city of Bellingham.

About a month ago, Louws said that after a year of working with mayors around the county, and having won agreement from six cities and the Whatcom County Council, he was done negotiating a deal to pay for a new Whatcom County Jail in Ferndale. If Bellingham wanted to change the plan, he said, it would need to go out on its own to get the approval from everyone else.

“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,” Louws said in an interview for an Aug. 4 article in The Bellingham Herald.

But on Monday night, Aug. 31, Louws spoke with the Bellingham City Council and said he was still waiting for them to formally propose specific changes, so he could know what could get Bellingham on board.

“I’d be happy to bring that back to the small cities and County Council to see if we’re in favor of it,” Louws told the council. “I’d love the opportunity to do that.”

The current plan asks the cities to give the lion’s share of the proposed 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents on a $100 purchase) to the county so it can bond the $97 million project and pay for the ongoing operations at the facility. Though the cities get back a portion of the sales tax that could be put toward their daily rates to house inmates, Bellingham has said it won’t be enough to cover their bill, and some have questioned if the deal has the city paying more than its fair share.

City officials also have said that passing the sales tax, which would max out that particular public safety cash source, could limit the city from funding other projects or alternatives to jail.

Jail population

Somewhat lost in the discussion was the point of a short presentation by Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, who had asked for the chance to remind the council that no matter whether voters approve a sales tax increase to pay for a new jail this November, he will be limiting the population in the deteriorating jail.

Once Elfo was done laying out the situation as he sees it — the current jail is full of life-safety issues, continues to need costly repairs, and is overcrowded to a point that cannot continue — council member Michael Lilliquist said he felt like the council and the county were talking past each other.

“Most of the city’s objections are financial concerns that have to do with the (jail use agreement),” Lilliquist said. “It’s frustrating to me I’ve been trying to express my concerns on the fairness of the funding plan and I don’t hear that addressed. Instead I hear about deplorable conditions. I don’t think most of us doubt that.”

Elfo said he would have to defer to Louws as far as the jail agreement goes, but that the jail conditions had continued to get worse and worse and worse.

“It’s not fair to have our employees in that condition, our citizens housed in those conditions,” Elfo said.

There was no discussion on planning for any reduction in the jail population, which could mean that some inmates would need to be held in other jails for lack of space in the current facility in Bellingham.

“I am offended.”

Though Louws said it was in the best interest for everyone to work together, he also mentioned, as he has before, that six of the seven cities had been “able to handle” the deal on the table and the quick turnaround to put a tax on the November ballot.

Contrary to Louws’ statements that Bellingham hadn’t given clear direction for how to change the deal, and the implication that the city was trying to go off on its own since it hadn’t signed the agreement, council member Pinky Vargas said she thought the city had been pretty clear.

“But just in case: We do support a new jail. We want it to happen as soon as possible. We know it’s not safe, for the people who work there or are incarcerated,” Vargas said. “We have tried to be collaborative, to negotiate, and it’s constantly portrayed that we are not team players. ... I am offended.”

Vargas said pretty much every change the city had brought forward had been rejected by the county, and yet Bellingham was portrayed as not collaborative.

“That’s not fair. At this time it is unreasonable for us to accept everything that’s been proposed just because that’s what’s on the table,” Vargas continued.

Council member Terry Bornemann said he was glad to hear Louws would consider negotiating, but he also pointed out Mayor Kelli Linville had already asked for changes that would be favorable to the city with no luck. Before the agreement even came before the council, Linville had asked that the costs to build the facility and to operate it be separated out in the agreement. She also asked to look to property tax to fund at least part of the project.

“There are some things the mayor brought up, and no, they aren’t and weren’t acceptable to me,” Louws said.

Council member Roxanne Murphy also said she was frustrated and questioned how the council had been painted.

“You can’t come to us in April and expect a response in August over something that is this extravagantly large, this expensive,” Murphy said. “Who starts a campaign and expects a positive vote in just a few months? I really wish the planning on this could have started earlier so we could do our community outreach.”

Murphy said the stand the council had taken – to not sign the agreement as written – had gotten her more community support than she could have imagined.

“I just hope if we have this meeting, we will actually negotiate,” she said.

The council voted to hold a special meeting to hash out a specific plan that Linville could take to the negotiating table.

The meeting has not yet been set. The city will give at least 24 hours notice before it takes place, as required by state law.

Specifically, Louws asked the council to bring forward “realistic changes.”

When asked in an interview Tuesday, Sept. 1, what a realistic change might be, Louws said “slight modifications” to the funding plan might be acceptable.

Arbitration

Louws happened to announce his sudden willingness to negotiate again just three days after Linville informed him that if the county wouldn’t negotiate a contract to house the city’s inmates, the city would force their hand under binding arbitration.

Linville’s Friday, Aug. 28, letter to Louws was in response to an Aug. 26 formal notice that the city’s inmates could be the first to get turned away from the county lockup due to space constraints once Bellingham’s current jail contract expires at the end of the year.

The state law on criminal justice responsibilities says that if a county and city can’t agree on the terms to renew a contract, either of them can demand that third parties work it out for them, and that whatever they figure out is the final decision.

When asked Tuesday why he’d had a change of heart, Louws said his staff had spoken with the small city mayors and there was some consensus that trying to get everyone on one agreement to use the jail was the best plan.

“They asked that we give it one more shot,” Louws said. “In terms of thinking it over, it’s probably the wise thing to do. So we did reach out again with the condition they actually let me know specifically what they would agree to.”

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

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